Last year, the American literary world lost one of its rock stars when Denis Johnson died. The 67-year-old, author of dozens of books and winner of multiple awards, died from liver cancer at his home in Gualala, California. Now, his final collection of short stories The Largesse of the Sea Maiden will be available, published amid tribute events across the country including a reading by local authors at City Lit Books (2523 N. Kedzie Blvd.) tonight.
Denis Johnson was born July 1, 1949 in Germany and earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Iowa, where he studied with another widely regarded master of short fiction: Raymond Carver. Likely informed by his own experience, the characters Johnson chose as his fictional subjects are often down on their luck and reflect the troubles of his early life. He struggled with substance abuse, and though he published his first collection of poetry at 19, found himself hospitalized for his drug addictions by the time he was 21. Johnson believed that sobriety would inhibit the creativity required for writing, but later found the opposite to be true. Once sober, Johnson began writing more productively, going on to publish novels, plays, poetry, and journalism. Though his output increased with his sobriety, Johnson is a writer known for the long gestation period of his work.
In 2013 he spoke to Yale Literary Magazine about his writing process, saying, “My projects tend to develop over years, beginning with scattered notes; then I start puttering and tinkering with ideas, voices, descriptions, and then I progress to some serious fooling around… in the latter stages I settle down and try to produce a couple of pages every day, with an occasional day off.”
This meticulous work ethic would pay off. According to his publisher, he authored nine novels, a novella, two collections of short stories, five poetry collections, two collections of plays, and a book of reportage, winning multiple awards and honors including the National Book Award and a finalist position for the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for Tree of Smoke, and another finalist position in 2012 for Train Dreams.
“To me the writing is all one thing, or maybe I should say it’s all nothing. The truth is, I just write sentences,” Johnson told the Los Angeles Times in 2014.
Like his teacher Carver, Johnson became known for a sparse style of prose that was lauded by the literary community before and after his death. Reviews and reactions from other best-selling and acclaim-garnering authors attest to his mastery, including his abilities to command legions of voices, and the humor filled wisdom displayed in his stories.
Though filled with the sort of unsavory characters he was known for, his collection of short stories Jesus’ Son touches on transcendence and the idea of salvation. In describing the narrator of the 1992 collection of linked stories, Johnson told the New York Times “Jung once said that inside of every alcoholic, there’s a seeker who got on the wrong track.”
In a Times article following his death, Richard Sandomir wrote about Johnson’s literary rise and his character.
“Mr. Johnson thought of himself as a Christian writer who wonders about the existence of God in a troubled world,” Sandomir wrote, including Johnson’s own words from New York magazine: “I have a feeling God finds us pretty funny, but that’s all the speaking I should do for God – he doesn’t go around talking about me.”
The Guardian reviewer Geoff Dyer commented on the effect of Johnson’s personal struggles on his writing.
“Whatever Johnson had gone through, however he expressed it on the page; it would all have been wasted had it not ended up being funny, because then a major percentage of wisdom would have been missing,” Dyer said.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, his forthcoming and final book, is available today, Jan. 16. Perhaps appropriately, it is described as “a haunting new collection of short stories on aging, mortality, and transcendence.” The title story was originally published in the New Yorker in 2014 and sees a man recount scattered moments throughout his life, like this quote from the story: “I wonder if you’re like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you.” This type of reflection seems consistent for Johnson. He told New Yorker Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman that the story took him seven or eight years to complete.
In many ways, the stories included in this collection seem like a continuation of his previous work: “The Starlight on Idaho” is written as a series of letters from a recovering alcoholic in rehab as he reflects on his self-destructive tendencies; “Strangler Bob” sees a group of jailed men chewing on magazine pages soaked in hallucinogenic drugs; and “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist” revolves around a conspiracy theory about Elvis Presley’s twin brother.
In celebration of the release of his final book, many bookstores and literary institutions around the country are hosting memorial events. At City Lit Books, a book release and tribute reading has been organized and will feature local authors who count Johnson as an influence. Writers Rebecca Makkai, Juan Martinez, Nami Mun, Adam Morgan, and Amin Ahmad will be featured, reading selections from the new book, presenting original work inspired by or in response to Johnson, or discussing the influence his writing has had on their own work. According to the local bookstore’s statement, these authors were invited to participate based on elements of “lyricism, forthrightness, and wit” in their writing that reflect similarities to Johnson’s. The new book will be available for purchase at the event, alongside Johnson’s other books and work from the featured local authors.
In anticipation of this event, a book club that meets in the bookstore chose to read Jesus’ Son at their monthly meeting this January. The book club, called “In Brief” by booksellers and members, was formed with the express purpose to “discuss a work of short stories or personal essays from writers both new and established,” so they chose what is considered by some to be Johnson’s masterwork. Early reviews of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden have been positive, leaving eager and optimistic Denis Johnson fans to consider which work will ultimately become “classic.”
Disclaimer: Matt Faries is a manager at City Lit Books.