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Review: The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson

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There is a moment in Denis Johnson's story collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, when the narrator stares directly into the proverbial camera while describing the death of a fellow author: "It's plain to you that at the time I write this, I'm not dead. But maybe by the time you read it."

Johnson, who had ties to Boise State University and literati like Anthony Doerr and Alan Heathcock, died at age 67 in May 2017 from liver cancer. He had earned multiple Pulitzer Prize nods, National Book and Whiting awards, and a Guggenheim fellowship. By 2012, when his novella Train Dreams was a Pulitzer finalist, critics were greeting his new books like old friends.

Largesse—out Tuesday, Jan. 16, on Random House—is the first collection of Johnson's stories to be released since Jesus' Son in 1992. Largesse contains hints the author wouldn't live to see the fruits of his labor, but to peg Johnson as a prophet of his own demise is to miss the point. While he populated this collection with artists, admen, madmen and mystics searching for meaning in their encounters with death, Johnson didn't ally himself with any of the ways they find it. He just told their stories.

Like antidotes to the internet and politics, each yarn returns the world to a human scale. In the titular story, guests at a party describe the loudest sounds they've ever heard: a wife asking for a divorce, a newborn wailing in its too-young mother's arms, a heartbeat during a coronary. In "Doppelganger, Poltergeist," a poet's genius is less interesting than his obsession with Elvis' stillborn twin. In between are addicts, failed marriages and stalled careers.

Along with his literary work, Johnson taught and lectured at Columbia University, the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, the University of Texas at Austin and Boise State. He taught a generation of writers sympathy for characters and an eye for narrative.

Several of Johnson's former students and colleagues—including Alan Heathcock, Christian Winn and a special guest—will be part of a tribute event at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 25, at Rediscovered Books. They will read from his works and tell their own stories about how the author affected their lives.