The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

by Denis Johnson, Picador, 207pp, £14.99

“It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But may be by the time you read it.” The last sentence of the pivotal story in Denis Johnson’s new collection feels like a blow to the chest. What makes it doubly so is that Johnson knew he was dying when he wrote those lines, and that he would be dead when we read them.

Death looms large in this final book from one of America’s greatest and most illuminating writers. Johnson confronts mortality with a forthrightness which is both startling and galvanising.

He began his career as a poet and his prose gives ample evidence of this: the wayward sentences seemingly spinning out of control, reeling across the page, only to land with a swift sharp shock. Of all contemporary American novelists, Johnson was perhaps the one most interested in the divine, in transcendence and in what it is like to live in the fallen world. From the outcast losers in his debut Angels, to the markedly older characters here, there is always a deep sense of yearning in Johnson’s writing, an almost electric longing for the presence of God.

Two of the five stories find Johnson at his peak. “The Starlight on Idaho” is comprised of letters written by a rehab facility inmate who begins to see the Devil in his room. It is by turns funny, sad, profound and terrifying.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection