Denis Johnson and The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
Already Dead: A California Gothic
Denis Johnson died last year the third of my three favourite American fiction writers to fall, after David Foster Wallace in 2008 and Thom Jones in 2016. I always described Johnson as “the best American fiction writer you've never heard of” though that stopped being quite so true after he won the National Book Award for his mammoth Vietnam War romp, Tree of Smoke, in 2007. He was always, and will probably remain, most famous for his early book Jesus' Son, a weird little collection of linked stories adapted into a weird little film with Billy Crudup in the late 90s. But, for me, he will always be the Johnson of Already Dead at least as weird, much bigger, plus thrilling, disturbing, pendulous with the implausible weight of its mysticism, existentialism, despair, and beauty. It is, and will probably always be, my second favourite novel of all time after Infinite Jest.
Anyway, he's gone now from liver cancer, albeit after decades of substance abuse; following Jones from a variety of health problems, most of them due to drinking, boxing, and obsessive exercise; and Wallace “elimination of his own cartography,” also after decades of depression and substance abuse. (I'm honestly not sure this is an entirely safe or healthy line of work to be in.) But Johnson did leave us a last gift, a posthumous, second, and final collection of short fiction. Even in death, he can still write sentences like these. And I'm not sure anyone else can or ever will.