Ernest Hemingway once ventured that all American literature derives from Huckleberry Finn. By this he meant American literature elevates vernacular speech, befitting literature in a democracy. Denis Johnson’s posthumous anthology, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is superlative proof of that.
Johnson is best known for his Vietnam War novel Tree of Smoke and short story collection Jesus’ Son. A pupil of Raymond Carver, he has garnered a reputation for the sordid and the hard-boiled. But only one story in his new collection, “The Starlight on Idaho,” might be called Carver-esque. It concerns a man in rehab and in fact is less Carver than Bukowski. It’s a no-hoper’s cri de coeur, avoiding the prevalent clichés of the rehab genre.
Johnson’s stories are that of a depleted and decadent civilization. He observes trains everywhere going off the rails. The joke of the title story, which is composed of many interlinked tales, is that modern life is distinctly lacking in largesse and sea maidens. The story “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist” is dedicated to Elvis, as the King is as close to mythology as such a society can come. Swirling speculations about Elvis’ supposed twin lost in childbirth reach a crescendo, which occurs just as the World Trade Center towers are struck and collapse.
Once a recovering addict, the late Johnson seems fixated on death and recovery. His stylistic range is certainly wondrous, straddling the starkness of “Starlight” and the hysterical realism of “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist.” Critics like B.R. Myers have found Johnson’s prose affected and artless, and one does wonder sometimes what purpose fiction serves if it doesn’t inspire. After all, even folksy Huckleberry Finn did that. But Johnson’s stories are pertinent and engaging. They hold up a mirror to society’s dregs and to that extent are flawless.