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Review: The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson


This is the first book I have ever read by Denis Johnson, but it will not be the last. Sadly, Johnson died of liver cancer in the spring of 2017, but he has a number of previous publications that are available, noteworthy and award-winning. This book is a series of short stories and not like any other set of stories I have ever encountered. Tremendously accessible on a basic level, they challenge the reader at every turn. A story appears to unfold like an "average" tale. Filled with characters who appear neither remarkable, nor attractive, the twists and turns of each story often find an incredible through line between what might be normal and what presents as ironic, comic, tragic, ludicrous, entertaining and disturbing. The writing is unique with a sense of straightforward simplicity; conjuring a voice, that roller coasters from common sentence structure, phraseology, and syntax to lines that soar with the best of literary writers. Seldom do I quote from books, but consider this: "I note that I've lived longer in the past, now, then I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. Memory fades, not much of the past stays, and I wouldn't mind forgetting a lot more of it." I could offer another half dozen examples of prose that at first appears simple, direct; words not fashioned together in a poetic construction to amaze, but to boil a sentence to a heat, turn it on its side, and deliver for your perusal, consideration, and possible confusion. The stories are as unique as they are interesting, pulling you into a tale that then begins to take you on an unexpected ride through a character, a plot, or your own life. Who are we? What are these struggles that we endure, sometimes by our own choices? Why are we happy in the midst of so much unhappiness? What is it all worth? Within these stories are the breadcrumbs that lead us into the forest of living, and perhaps lead us back out, but not without asking us to consider and reflect. Johnson believes that the world is a much denser, disturbing, yet amazing kind of screen to write our stories upon than what we have been led to believe. He takes us to places we would not venture on our own. His voice will be missed, but he left a legacy that we can all consider, and grapple with.