Catching Up With Denis Johnson’s Star-Crossed Drifters

Denis Johnson

“You hop into a car, race off in no particular direction, and blam, hit a power pole.” This is not the first sentence of Tiger Woods’s autobiography. Instead it’s the first line of “Strangler Bob,” one of the short stories in Denis Johnson’s posthumous book, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.”

It’s awful to have to type that word, posthumous. Johnson died last May at 67, from liver cancer. The book in front of us today is one for which many people have waited — as if outside, in the acid rain — a long time. It’s the follow-up to “Jesus’ Son” (1992), perhaps the most influential and beloved book of American short stories of the past three decades.

Johnson won a National Book Award for “Tree of Smoke” (2007), an ambitious if sometimes blustery novel about the C.I.A. and Vietnam. But when writers (and readers) get a faraway look in their eyes at the mention of Johnson’s name, “Tree of Smoke” is not the book they are summoning to mind.

You haven’t read “Jesus’ Son”? In spare, shining language that was reminiscent of Hemingway’s, Raymond Carver’s and Jayne Anne Phillips’s, it depicted the lives of a series of grievous angels — junkies, drifters, no-hopers, the almost comically damned — and gave them mythic dimension.

Like bulbs planted upside down, these men and women sought sunlight and escape but could not find it. Like certain baboons, their backsides were red and chewed by existence. Their veins were flooded when possible with the relief of heroin; our veins with the pleasures of Johnson’s resonant voice. “Talk into my bullet hole,” one man says. “Tell me I’m fine.”

“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” picks up, to a large extent, where “Jesus’ Son” left off. Only a few characters recur, but these are essentially the same unlucky bipeds, sometimes glimpsed a few decades later.

Their friends are dying and their own bodies have begun to betray them. One reports that he “took my insomnia, my afternoon headaches, my doubts and my antacid tablets to San Diego and lost them in the Pacific Ocean.” Several have found success of a provisional sort as writers or advertising men. Others tell their stories from prison.

“Just to catch you up,” one writes an old girlfriend from jail. “In the last five years I’ve been arrested about eight times, shot twice, not twice on one occasion, but once on two different occasions, etc etc and I think I got run over once but I don’t even remember it.”

Where did his life, or any of these lives, go wrong? Well, to put it in the poet Paul Muldoon’s words,

the spot where we take a wrong turn
is rarely marked by either an urn
or a tire scorch.

Credit...Cindy Lee

To return to “Strangler Bob,” the story mentioned at the top of this review: Its narrator recalls his time in the county lockup in 1967, back when dogs and children ran free in the streets. In one liquid, very Denis Johnsonian moment, he remarks, in a long sentence that hovers over this collection:

“I wondered if this place was some kind of intersection for souls. I don’t know what to make of the fact that I’ve seen those same men many times throughout my life, repeatedly in dreams and sometimes in actuality — turning a corner on the street, gazing out the window of a passing train, or leaving a cafe just at the moment I glance up and recognize them, then disappearing out the door — and it makes me feel each person’s universe is really very small, no bigger than a county jail, a collection of cells in which he encounters the same fellow prisoners over and over.”

Never discount the black humor in Johnson’s humane vision. Another prisoner asks Strangler Bob, “Do you mean to say you gobbled up a T-bone steak and red imported wine and all, and then you — you know, executed your wife — and then you had chicken?”

The stories in “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” are not as cohesive or as plangent as those in “Jesus’ Son.” This is a lesser book, but only in the sense that the best later Sinatra records were lesser than “In the Wee Small Hours,” or that Neil Young could not in later decades recapture the mood of “After the Gold Rush” or “Tonight’s the Night.”

These stories drift, but Johnson finesses his way through them, his prose vernacular and elevated at the same time. One can say about this book what one narrator says about the poems of a writer he loves: “They were the real thing, line after line of the real thing.”

The story that sentence comes from is titled “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” but it is destined to become known as The Elvis Story.

Its narrator, Kevin, is an academic who has fits and outbursts in class — “conniptions,” in his words.

His best student, Mark, becomes a friend and an important poet, one who was once arrested for trying to rob Elvis’s grave. Mark has now seized on a conspiracy theory: That Elvis’s music went downhill after he left the Army because Colonel Parker had killed him and replaced him with his twin brother, who wasn’t stillborn as popularly understood.

Mark confesses this theory to Kevin because “you understand what it is to be moved by Elvis Presley.” Kevin remarks to us: “I discount his theory, but I value the obsession. And I commend his nerve. Old southern graveyards harbor an unwholesome power comparable to that of nuclear disaster sites.”

Near the end of the story Kevin tells Mark something that some people wish they had been able to tell Johnson: “I’m your closest reader on this earth.”

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