Saturday, January 27, 2018

"The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden", Denis Johnson short stories

These are excerpts:

"I mean it's like I get that glass as far as just touching against my lower lip, and the next thing I know I'm on the Ghost-Bus to Vegas."

"I put down one foot on the Road of Regret, and set out on my journey."

"remember, 1967.  Pets and children wandered loose in the streets.  Respected citizens threw their litter anywhere."

"The daughter of Japanese immigrants, Liz, a black haired beauty even now in her sixties, had become in recent years a physically quite tentative and cautious person... But she stayed serene and cheerful, and greeted everyone, whether a lifelong acquaintance or a brand-new face, with a hug and a smile, saying, Hello Stranger."

"Manhattan in the 1980's had a pulse, heady, potent, but like a wound's.  Do you remember?  Death-camp homeless.  Guerrilla vendors.  Three-card monte.  Trash all over the streets.  How I survived this attack on multiple fronts, I can't imagine."

"The next morning I turned on the news and learned of the death, the previous night, of Elvis Presley... and my mind snapped, my soul sickened, and I went to Memphis.  It was either that, or kill the dog."

"Anybody could turn up at the Chelsea---the next morning, for instance, I stepped into the small doubtful elevator by myself, and on the fourth floor I picked up Peter O'Toole... he listened to me closely, in happy surprise, as if he'd never heard of these movies before, or even of himself... At the moment, I was heading anywhere at all for breakfast, but when I heard the desk clerk's radio playing news that an aircraft, I assumed a sightseeing plane, had struck Tower Two of the World Trade Center, I decided to jump on the number 3 subway, half a block west, and go have a look."

These are not so random quotes from the five short stories in "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden", a book completed shortly before Denis Johnson's death last year at age 67.  Johnson was a unique talent whose books could be uneven, singly or within the pages of each one.  Whenever he published something, it became of interest immediately.  There was a distinct edge to his writing that could lead sentences to jump off a page, paragraphs to be mind bending, or story lines to build momentum quickly.  Whether everything always hung together was irrelevant.  The punch was in the writing.  If there is such a thing as poetic short stories, this may be it.

Clearly, I have no balanced approach to commenting on Johnson's work.  Some of the short stories in this book deal with his usual down and outs, while some cut closer to home.  Whoever the characters, they are often a template for some truth just around the corner.  A National Book Award winner, Johnson was an American voice who used the hip, grittier, or troubled areas of our world to speak broadly.  And he had a sense of humor.  Quite a combination.


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