When Elvis Presley died, one of his producers, Felton Jarvis, said, “It’s like someone came up to me and just told me there aren’t going to be any more cheeseburgers in the world.” Much of the American literary world felt the same way when Denis Johnson died, last May. He was 67, and over the preceding three decades he’d become that rarest of things: a writer’s writer who had gradually collected a large general audience.
For all that, he was a strange and contradictory figure: a poet who made his name as a novelist; a novelist best known for a tiny book of short stories called Jesus’ Son; a short story writer whose tales have the compression and logic of poems. He wrote realistically about delirium and deliriously about reality; he wrote epic miniatures and doorstops that went by in a flash. Mostly, he wrote beautifully about bad luck and bad choices, and the people who tried, not always successfully, to survive them.
Just before his death, Johnson completed another book of short stories, five in total, collected under the title The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (February 6, Random House). They’re longer than the stories in Jesus’ Son, and while a few of them are as oracular and wild, others are sadder, older, and wiser, as if he were channeling John Cheever, albeit a Cheever who shot dope instead of drinking. The book is an unexpected gift from beyond the grave, proving, if proof were needed, just how much we miss when an art such as his is cut short. Would that he were still around to guide us into old age. Instead, like one of his characters, we’ll have to make do with what we’re given.