Denis Johnson’s posthumous short story collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,is full of last calls to his readers signaling, “Hurry up please, it’s time.” Take these eerie sentences spoken by the narrator of a story called “Triumph Over the Grave”:
It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.
Of course, those sentences leap off the page because Johnson himself is now dead, carried off by liver cancer in May of 2017 at the age of 67.
Johnson always named Walt Whitman as one of his core influences and you can hear Whitman throughout this whole collection. Like those direct addresses to his future readers that Whitman scatters throughout Leaves of Grass, Johnson, in these stories, anticipates talking across the abyss that separates the quick from the dead.
In his gritty way, Johnson was a believer in transcendence. His 1992 collection of linked short stories, Jesus’ Son, which many critics and readers have anointed as his masterpiece, is about junkies and losers, crashing their way along American highways, searching for redemption and finding it — sort of.
The five stories in this new collection are stand-alones, but they all share an explicit awareness that Death is in the neighborhood. Most of these stories are terrific, and two — the first and the last — are out-of-this-world.