Before it gets there, though, it sets the mood, beginning with the title story and its apparently unrelated fragments — some of them about advertising and some featuring blunt episodes of sex and death like something out of a late 1960s Jerzy Kosinski novel. This is followed by a weaker set piece about rehab, “The Starlight on Idaho”; reading it, I worried that the presumably ill and suffering author was too consumed with his difficulties to reach his most fertile core. But then comes “Strangler Bob,” in which Dink, the narrator (all of the stories are in the first person), tries to reckon not only with his reduced circumstances but with a prophecy, courtesy of his cellmate in county lockup, that he and two felonious acquaintances will one day commit a murder. It’s all very fun and strange, with glimmers of the old Johnson at work.
And then that Johnson breaks through in a big way, in a story boldly and maybe hopefully titled “Triumph Over the Grave,” and suddenly every mild reservation you might have had is forgotten. Suddenly, with exceptional luminosity, there is an unveiling.
“Triumph” begins as a journal entry in a slightly stiff present tense, but then tumbles backward into a story within the story about a fellow writer the narrator (who is not quite Johnson himself, but certainly a near relation) knew in Austin, Tex., during a time of teaching creative writing. Thus the story becomes a powerful vehicle for recollections about the author’s own complex life in literature:
“I’ve gone from rags to riches and back again, and more than once. Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page, work it into a shape, cast it in a light. It’s not much different, really, from filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie — although it has to be admitted that the clouds can descend, take you up, carry you to all kinds of places, some of them terrible, and you don’t get back where you came from for years and years.”
In dispatching the poor writer from Texas, “Triumph Over the Grave” turns to three recitations of loss, each painfully exacting. And it closes with a startlingly beautiful bedside reunion of two long-divorced lovers. The story, both ingenious and exceedingly well composed, rehabilitates literature for us, exposing its purpose anew, which, it seems to me, is precisely to cast in language the nature of being, and to leave some of this language behind for those who would have a trail of bread crumbs through the darkness. “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” as a volume, drills down into and through what is tolerable until it hits a powerful vein of the painfully mortal and lasting. If it ends with a yawp of tragicomedy in the Elvis Presley story, “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” it’s only to remind us that Dante, too, was a toiler in the comedic fields, no matter how brutal and austere his triune cosmogony.
The problem with a posthumous book is that it’s hard to see the work clearly for the tragedy that orbits it. This is especially true when the author is recently deceased, or has died abruptly. The death haunts the text and prevents us from freely roaming it to draw our own conclusions; instead, we see in every exchange the hand of fate. But in “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” Denis Johnson tries to comfort us about his impending absence, and to use his stunning gift for revelation — truly his singular skill — to brighten the interiors of tragedy and help us wave off the vultures hovering above. It need not, as he says, be so sad: “Life after death, ghosts, Paradise, eternity — of course, we take all that as granted. Otherwise where’s the fun?”