By Carissa Chesanek
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2018.
Carissa Chesanek, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, reflects on Denis Johnsons's new book The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (Random House) which is among the final five selections in the category of Fiction for the 2019 NBCC Awards.
Denis Johnson has never been shy to write about dark topics, and in his latest and final book, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, he shows there’s much left to unveil. It is a masterful collection of short stories that are raw and harsh, dealing with mortality and the unknown. But there is much beauty in here too, and a hint of promise seen even in the worst possible circumstances.
The short story collection comes twenty-five years after his last book, Jesus’ Son and provides that familiar memorable prose and offbeat characters living in messy male-dominated worlds. Johnson has a way of writing about disturbing identities and getting into the psyche of these characters, all while doing it with a stunning poetic prose. Nothing is gimmicky with Johnson. There is an aggressiveness to his work that lures you in and once you’re there, it’s hard to ever want to leave. You’re invested in these imperfect characters whether you like it or not, and it’s within their imperfections, you find beauty. Sure, these characters (and the world they live in) can be unsettling, but they are also honest and lost, making them feel all the more real.
In the first story, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” Bill Whitman takes a mental walk along Memory Lane while visiting New York to accept an award in his honor. His past is mucky but we don’t hate him for it because his humor helps shape him into a likable human being that we want to see succeed.
Cass is a good example of a complex character in “The Starlight on Idaho,” as he’s not entirely as he seems. The story is brilliantly written in the form of letters by Cass to anyone from his brother to Satan. It’s in these letters that a major revelation about Cass is revealed and we learn how his once heroic career helped shape him into the addict he is today. But Cass still has hope for himself and so do we, or at least a good deal of sympathy.
In “Strangler Bob,” we meet Dink who is currently in jail with a man that goes by the name Strangler Bob, and he predicts all the men locked up will become murderers, if they aren’t already. These predictions may hold some truth, but not in the obvious way, which makes them all the more alarming. You don’t necessarily consider taking your own life and sharing needles as murderous acts, but in this story, you will.
In “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” a professor and his former student go down a rabbit hole to find the truth behind an Elvis conspiracy revolving around the King’s possible twin brother. These two characters are flawed and unreliable, and yet, we still follow them throughout their journey, captivated by the way their minds work and at times, allowing their passionate beliefs to reflect our own.
However, it’s the second to last story, “Triumph Over the Grave,” that causes a real gut reaction, as most reviewers have noted who have read it. The story itself is melancholy as it follows a writer dealing with a dying colleague, but it’s the end that will haunt you, a seemingly final word from Johnson before his death about his own existence: “It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.”
Writing like Johnson is a dream many writers share, myself included. Since I first read Jesus’ Son several years ago, I was captivated by the language and the same goes for The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. Johnson is a true master and has an impressive way of taking chances in his work. He shocks the reader with his language and his stories, and it’s something I try and can only hope to adept in my own writing. Johnson doesn’t sugarcoat things, he doesn’t try to make it easier to digest. He knows this is hard stuff to read, he knows it might not be what we want to digest. But thankfully, Johnson never gave a damn. And of course, he’s a beautiful writer. Thankfully, he was always confident in his work. Confident but never ignorant. Perhaps he knew his readers would understand his efforts, or at least, he never gave up hope that we someday would.
Denis Johnson was the author of nine novels, one novella, two books of short stories, five collections of poetry, two collections of plays, and one book of reportage. Among other honors, his novel Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award and was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, and Train Dreams was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.
Carissa Chesanek has worked as a journalist for many years, writing for publications that include Food Network, The Village Voice, Miami Herald, Forbes Travel Guide, and Zagat where she was the Miami editor for two years. She is a current MFA Creative Writing (fiction) student at The New School and working on her debut novel. Her creative writing was nominated for the Freddie Award for Writing Excellence with the Mystery Writers of America and shortlisted for Frith Books’ anthology, Restless. She is a fiction reader for Carve Magazine and a volunteer writing mentor for PEN America's prison writing program, and was recently awarded an internship with the Center for Fiction.