Cover image for The largesse of the sea maiden
The largesse of the sea maiden
Johnson, Denis, 1949-2017, author.
First edition.
Physical Description:
207 pages ; 22 cm
The largesse of the sea maiden -- The starlight on Idaho -- Strangler Bob -- Triumph over the grave -- Doppelgänger, poltergeist.
"The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is the long-awaited new story collection from Denis Johnson. Written in the luminous prose that made him one of the most beloved and important writers of his generation, this collection finds Johnson in new territory, contemplating the ghosts of the past and the elusive and unexpected ways the mysteries of the universe assert themselves. Finished shortly before Johnson?s death, this collection is the last word from a writer whose work will live on for many years to come."


Call Number
Material Type
Corning - Southeast Steuben County Library 1 FIC JOH Adult Fiction Book
Elmira - Steele Memorial Library 1 FICTION Adult Fiction Book
Horseheads Free Library 1 FICTION Adult Fiction Book

On Order



Twenty-five years after Jesus' Son, a haunting new collection of short stories on mortality and transcendence, from National Book Award winner and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Denis Johnson

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is the long-awaited new story collection from Denis Johnson. Written in the luminous prose that made him one of the most beloved and important writers of his generation, this collection finds Johnson in new territory, contemplating the ghosts of the past and the elusive and unexpected ways the mysteries of the universe assert themselves.

Finished shortly before Johnson's death, this collection is the last word from a writer whose work will live on for many years to come.

Praise for The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

"These four stories rank with Johnson's best work, but the title story, a catalogue of singular moments related by a man who tells us he's passing through life as if it were a masquerade, ranks with the best fiction published by any American writer during this short century." -- New York Magazine

"Most of these stories are terrific, and two--the first and the last--are out-of-this-world. I say this not out of deference to the recently deceased, but in awe. When Johnson wrote at reckless full force, his sentences and storylines blasted barriers, discovering those odd places where, as one of his narrators here says, 'the Mystery winks at you.' . . . The Largesse of The Sea Maiden contains the kind of work every writer would like to go out on: fresh, profound and singular. It affirms literature's promise to believers, the gift of eternal voice." --Maureen Corrigan on Fresh Air, NPR

"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, perhaps the most influential and beloved book of American short stories of the past three decades. . . . The Largesse of the Sea Maiden picks up, to a large extent, where Jesus' Son left off . . . [with] 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 New York Times

Author Notes

Denis Johnson was born in Munich, Germany on July 1, 1949. He received a bachelor's degree and a master's degree from the University of Iowa. He published his first book of poetry, The Man Among the Seals, at the age of 19. However, addictions to alcohol and drugs derailed him and he was in a psychiatric ward at the age of 21. He was sober by the early 1980s.

Along with writing several volumes of poetry, Johnson wrote short stories for The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Paris Review, and Best American Short Stories. His novels included Angels, Jesus' Son, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Already Dead, Nobody Move, Train Dreams, and The Laughing Monsters. He won the National Book Award in 2007 for Tree of Smoke. He also received the Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts, the Robert Frost Award, and the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. He died of liver cancer on May 24, 2017 at the age of 67.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* A magnet for weirdness, the narrator in the episodic and mesmerizing title story in this percussive collection asks if, like him, you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you. This well describes Johnson's modus operandi throughout this posthumously published gathering of psychologically revelatory, spiritually inquisitive, and grimly funny stories about the derailed and the deranged. National Book Award-winner Johnson's death at age 67 in May 2017 makes his portraits of characters suffering from mental imbalance and addiction, and those trying to care for them, all the more resonant; so, too, his fascination with fairy tales, which infuses his edgy dramas, including one set in a rehab center, another in jail, with timelessness and universality. No matter how lunatic and chaotic the mindscapes and goings-on become, Johnson's language remains knifing in its clarity. Triumph over the Grave, a magnificently unnerving story in which a revered writer comes to a sad end, concludes presciently with the narrator observing, It's plain to you that at the time I write this, I'm not dead. But maybe by the time you read it. Johnson will be remembered and revered as an incisive storyteller fluent in the comedy and tragedy of human confusion and the transcendence of compassion.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2017 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

An outstanding assemblage of actors narrates this powerful collection of five short stories from the late Johnson, who died in 2017. Film actor Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Nocturnal Animals) soulfully relays "The Starlight on Idaho," which unfolds in a series of letters to friends and family, written by a character named Mark "Cass" Cassandra from inside a rehab facility where he is trying, once again, to get clean. Shannon's delivery fully embraces the highs and lows of Cass's missives, which are at times as funny as they are tragic. "Triumph over the Grave" is written from the perspective of an elderly writer who ponders his mortality while reflecting on the deaths of his friends. Voice actor Will Patton reads this story in a Southern accent. He sounds both reflective and wise, and his slow pacing gives the impression that the speaker is a man who chooses his words carefully. The story ends with a chilling passage that Patton transforms into a emotionally raw soliloquy. While Patton and Shannon provide the most noteworthy performances, the other stories, which are read by celebrity narrators Nick Offerman, Dermot Mulroney, and Liev Schreiber, are also excellent. These exceptional stories are expertly rendered, both in the writing and the reading, and are a fitting finale to Johnson's career. A Random House hardcover. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

"This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life," the ad man protagonist of the title story states, and that sentence could serve as the epigraph of this powerful, haunting collection. Through the voices of characters as divergent as convicts, drug addicts, and college professors, Johnson explores themes of age, loss, and death. The title story is a suite of encounters with death and mystery. In "The Starlight of Idaho," a paroled felon in rehab writes letters to significant people in his life, ranging from family members to the Pope and Satan-all as part of his therapy. In "Triumph over the Grave," a creative writing professor juxtaposes his relationship with an elderly writer and that of another elderly man for whom he becomes caretaker. "Doppelgänger, Poltergeist" focuses on the relationship between a creative writing teacher and a brilliant young poet and the poet's obsession with Elvis's death. Verdict The late Johnson writes here with rare understanding, compassion, and generosity of spirit. Elegiac, yet oddly hopeful, these stories represent a summation of hard lessons that in the end can only be called wisdom. A stunning valedictory from a writer who at age 67 left us too soon. [See Prepub Alert, 7/3/17.]-Lawrence Rungren, Andover, MA © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Silences After dinner, nobody went home right away. I think we'd enjoyed the meal so much we hoped Elaine would serve us the whole thing all over again. These were people we've gotten to know a little from Elaine's volunteer work--nobody from my work, nobody from the ad agency. We sat around in the living room describing the loudest sounds we'd ever heard. One said it was his wife's voice when she told him she didn't love him anymore and wanted a divorce. Another recalled the pounding of his heart when he suffered a coronary. Tia Jones had become a grandmother at the age of thirty-seven and hoped never again to hear anything so loud as her granddaughter crying in her sixteen-year-old daughter's arms. Her husband Ralph said it hurt his ears whenever his brother opened his mouth in public, because his brother had Tourette syndrome and erupted with remarks like "I masturbate! Your penis smells good!" in front of perfect strangers on a bus, or during a movie, or even in church. Young Chris Case reversed the direction and introduced the topic of silences. He said the most silent thing he'd ever heard was the land mine taking off his right leg outside Kabul, Afghanistan. As for other silences, nobody contributed. In fact, there came a silence now. Some of us hadn't realized that Chris had lost a leg. He limped, but only slightly. I didn't even know he'd fought in Afghanistan. "A land mine?" I said. "Yes, sir. A land mine." "Can we see it?" Deirdre said. "No, ma'am," Chris said. "I don't carry land mines around on my person." "No! I mean your leg." "It was blown off." "I mean the part that's still there!" "I'll show you," he said, "if you kiss it." Shocked laughter. We started talking about the most ridiculous things we'd ever kissed. Nothing of interest. We'd all kissed only people, and only in the usual places. "All right, then," Chris told Deirdre, "here's your chance for the conversation's most unique entry." "No, I don't want to kiss your leg!" Although none of us showed it, I think we all felt a little irritated with Deirdre. We all wanted to see. Morton Sands was there too that night, and for the most part he'd managed to keep quiet. Now he said, "Jesus Christ, Deirdre." "Oh, well. Okay," she said. Chris pulled up his right pant leg, bunching the cuff about halfway up his thigh, and detached his prosthesis, a device of chromium bars and plastic belts strapped to his knee, which was intact and swiveled upward horribly to present the puckered end of his leg. Deirdre got down on her bare knees before him, and he hitched forward in his seat--the couch, Ralph Jones was sitting beside him--to move the scarred stump within two inches of Deirdre's face. Now she started to cry. Now we were all embarrassed, a little ashamed. For nearly a minute, we waited. Then Ralph Jones said, "Chris, I remember when I saw you fight two guys at once outside the Aces Tavern. No kidding," Jones told the rest of us, "he went outside with these two guys and beat the crap out of both of them." "I guess I could've given them a break," Chris said. "They were both pretty drunk." "Chris, you sure kicked some ass that night." In the pocket of my shirt I had a wonderful Cuban cigar. I wanted to step outside with it. The dinner had been one of our best, and I wanted to top off the experience with a satisfying smoke. But you want to see how this sort of thing turns out. How often will you witness a woman kissing an amputation? Jones, however, had ruined everything by talking. He'd broken the spell. Chris worked the prosthesis back into place and tightened the straps and rearranged his pant leg. Deirdre stood up and wiped her eyes and smoothed her skirt and took her seat, and that was that. The outcome of all this was that Chris and Deirdre, about six months later, down at the courthouse, in the presence of very nearly the same group of friends, were married by a magistrate. Yes, they're husband and wife. You and I know what goes on. Accomplices Another silence comes to mind. A couple of years ago Elaine and I had dinner at the home of Miller Thomas, formerly the head of my agency in Manhattan. Right--he and his wife Francesca ended up out here too, but considerably later than Elaine and I--once my boss, now a San Diego retiree. We finished two bottles of wine with dinner, maybe three bottles. After dinner we had brandy. Before dinner we had cocktails. We didn't know each other particularly well, and maybe we used the liquor to rush past that fact. After the brandy I started drinking scotch, and Miller drank bourbon, and, although the weather was warm enough that the central air conditioner was running, he pronounced it a cold night and lit a fire in his fireplace. It took only a squirt of fluid and the pop of a match to get an armload of sticks crackling and blazing, and then he laid on a couple of large chunks he said were good, seasoned oak. "The capitalist at his forge," Francesca said. At one point we were standing in the light of the flames, I and Miller Thomas, seeing how many books each man could balance on his outflung arms, Elaine and Francesca loading them onto our hands in a test of equilibrium which both of us failed repeatedly. It became a test of strength. I don't know who won. We called for more and more books, and our women piled them on until most of Miller's library lay around us on the floor. He had a small Marsden Hartley canvas mounted above the mantel, a crazy, mostly blue landscape done in oil, and I said that perhaps that wasn't the place for a painting like this one, so near the smoke and heat, such an expensive painting. And the painting was masterly, too, from what I could see of it by dim lamps and firelight, amid books scattered all over the floor . . . Miller took offense. He said he'd paid for this masterpiece, he owned it, he could put it where it suited him. He moved very near the flames and took down the painting and turned to us holding it before him and declared that he could even, if he wanted, throw it in the fire and leave it there. "Is it art? Sure. But listen," he said, "art doesn't own it. My name ain't Art." He held the canvas flat like a tray, landscape up, and tempted the flames with it, thrusting it in and out . . . And the strange thing is that I'd heard a nearly identical story about Miller Thomas and his beloved Hartley landscape some years before, about an evening very similar to this one, the drinks and wine and brandy and more drinks, the rowdy conversation, the scattering of books, and finally Miller thrusting this painting toward the flames and calling it his own property and threatening to burn it. On that previous night his guests had talked him down from the heights, and he'd hung the painting back in its place, but on our night--why?--none of us found a way to object as he added his property to the fuel and turned his back and walked away. A black spot appeared on the canvas and spread out in a sort of smoking puddle that gave rise to tiny flames. Miller sat in a chair across the living room, by the flickering window, and observed from that distance with a drink in his hand. Not a word, not a move, from any of us. The wooden frame popped marvelously in the silence while the great painting cooked away, first black and twisted, soon gray and fluttering, and then the fire had it all. Ad Man This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life--the distance I've traveled from my own youth, the persistence of the old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms--that I almost crashed the car. Getting out at the place where I do the job I don't feel I'm very good at, I grabbed my briefcase too roughly and dumped half of its contents in my lap and half in the parking lot, and while gathering it all up I left my keys on the seat and locked the car manually--an old man's habit--and trapped them in the RAV. In the office, I asked Shylene to call a locksmith and then get me an appointment with my back-man. In the upper right quadrant of my back I have a nerve that once in a while gets pinched. The T4 nerve. These nerves aren't frail little ink lines; they're cords as thick as your pinky finger. This one gets caught between tense muscles, and for days, even for weeks, there's not much to be done but take aspirins and get massages and visit the chiropractor. Down my right arm I feel a tingling, a numbness, sometimes a dull, sort of muffled torment, or else a shapeless, confusing pain. It's a signal: it happens when I'm anxious about something. To my surprise, Shylene knew all about this something. Apparently she finds time to be Googling her bosses, and she'd learned of an award I was about to receive in, of all places, New York--for an animated television commercial. The award goes to my old New York team, but I was the only one of us attending the ceremony, possibly the only one interested, so many years down the line. This little gesture of acknowledgment put the finishing touches on a depressing picture. The people on my team had gone on to other teams, fancier agencies, higher accomplishments. All I'd done in better than two decades was to tread forward until I reached the limit of certain assumptions, and step off. Meanwhile, Shylene was oohing, gushing, like a proud nurse who expects you to marvel at all the unholy procedures the hospital has in store for you. I said to her, "Thanks, thanks." When I entered the reception area, and throughout this transaction, Shylene wore a flashy sequined carnival masque. I didn't ask why. Our office environment is part of the new wave. The whole agency works under one gigantic big top like a circus--not crowded, quite congenial, all of it surrounding a spacious break-time area with pinball machines and a basketball hoop, and every Friday during the summer months we have a Happy Hour with free beer from a keg. In New York I made commercials. In San Diego I write and design glossy brochures, mostly for a group of western resorts where golf is played and horses take you along bridle paths. Don't get me wrong--California's full of beautiful spots; it's a pleasure to bring them to the attention of people who might enjoy them. Just, please, not with a badly pinched nerve. When I can't stand it I take the day off and visit the big art museum in Balboa Park. Today, after the locksmith got me back in my car, I drove to the museum and sat in on part of a lecture in one of its side-rooms, a woman Outsider artist raving, "Art is man and man is art!" I listened for five minutes, and what little of it she managed to make comprehensible didn't even merit being called shallow. Just the same, her paintings were slyly designed, intricately patterned, and coherent. I wandered from wall to wall, taking some of it in, not much. But looking at art for an hour or so always changes the way I see things afterward--this day, for instance, a group of mentally handicapped adults on a tour of the place with their twisted, hovering hands and cocked heads, moving among the works like cheap cinema zombies, but good zombies, zombies with minds and souls and things to keep them interested. And outside, where they normally have a lot of large metal sculptures, the grounds were being dug up and reconstructed--a dragline shovel nosing the rubble monstrously, and a woman and child watching, motionless, the little boy standing on a bench with his smile and sideways eyes and his mother beside him, holding his hand, both so still, like a photograph of American ruin. Next I had a session with a chiropractor dressed up as an elf. It seemed the entire staff at the medical complex near my house were costumed for Halloween, and while I waited out front in the car for my appointment, the earliest one I could get that day, I saw a Swiss milkmaid coming back from lunch, then a witch with a green face, then a sunburst-orange superhero. Then I had the session with the chiropractor in his tights and drooping cap. As for me? My usual guise. The masquerade continues. Farewell Elaine got a wall phone for the kitchen, a sleek blue one that wears its receiver like a hat, with a caller ID readout on its face just below the keypad. While I eyeballed this instrument, having just come in from my visit with the chiropractor, a brisk, modest tone began, and the tiny screen showed ten digits I didn't recognize. My inclination was to scorn it like any other unknown. But this was the first call, the inaugural message. As soon as I touched the receiver I wondered if I'd regret this, if I was holding a mistake in my hand, if I was pulling this mistake to my head and saying "Hello" to it. The caller was my first wife, Virginia, or Ginny, as I'd always called her. We'd been married long ago, in our early twenties, and put a stop to it after three crazy years. Since then we hadn't spoken, we'd had no reason to, but now we had one. Ginny was dying. Her voice came faintly. She told me the doctors had closed the book on her, she'd ordered her affairs, the good people from hospice were in attendance. Before she ended this earthly transit, as she called it, Ginny wanted to shed any kind of bitterness against certain people, certain men, especially me. She said how much she'd been hurt, and how badly she wanted to forgive me, but she didn't know whether she could or not--she hoped she could--and I assured her, from the abyss of a broken heart, that I hoped so too, that I hated my infidelities and my lies about the money, and the way I'd kept my boredom secret, and my secrets in general, and Ginny and I talked, after forty years of silence, about the many other ways I'd stolen her right to the truth. Excerpted from The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories by Denis Johnson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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