Shades of Death

Denis Johnson
Denis Johnson; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

Early in the fourth story of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, we are introduced to a shadowy character named Darcy Miller, a writer dying of liver cancer in the middle of nowhere. The narrator tells us that this writer, his friend, once published under the name “D. Hale Miller.” He goes on to say that “I’m aware it’s the convention in these semi-autobiographical tales—these pseudo-fictional memoirs—to disguise people’s names, but I haven’t done that.”

Even granted the latitude of fiction, this statement is simply untrue. There has never been an author named D. Hale Miller, but there certainly was Denis Hale Johnson, who died at the age of sixty-seven in May 2017, also of liver cancer, and on those occasions when I encountered him, he “looked,” as the narrator says of D. Hale Miller, “something like a child snatched from a nap.” The story in which D. Hale Miller appears is titled “Triumph over the Grave,” and like the other stories in this collection, it has the black crepe of mortality hanging directly over it. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden contains another, more alarming feature: affrighted intuitions about the afterlife, combined with the trappings of religious and gothic fiction, including doppelgängers, grave robbers, ghouls, and demons. In fact, it doesn’t feel like a last book so much as a thoroughly posthumous one. “It’s plain,” the author writes, “to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.” All right, then: Where is the triumph over the grave to which the title of the story refers? And what is it?

Denis Johnson’s first two books were collections of poetry, and he published poems intermittently throughout his career. The narrator in one of the stories in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden says that his own poems were “fraudulent,” but Johnson’s early poems nevertheless point to some of the directions his work would take him. A reader who might have chanced upon Inner Weather, for example, published by Graywolf Press in 1976 in an edition of six hundred copies (and not listed among the author’s works in the later novels), might be startled by the tone of calm anguish that most of the poems project. They suggest a long-standing acquaintance with desolation. Here is the final stanza of the book’s first poem, “An Evening with the Evening”:

Suddenly it is the total blackness
with the numerous small lights of the face
of the city shining through it;
then it is the end,
which is only himself, going
home to his wife and children,
turning and trying to walk away from the darkness
that precedes him, darkness of which he is the center.

The darkness, this stanza asserts, is internal and thus unavoidable. Just about all the poems in the book sound like that: the speaker…

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