Elvis Presley was born to a death. His twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, was delivered first, didn’t live at all, and everything that happened next was a swaggering wobble between those two poles. Denis Johnson, who passed away from liver cancer at 67 in May 2017, references Elvis glancingly in several of his works — Train Dreams (2011), Tree of Smoke (2007), Jesus’ Son (1992), and in the final pages of his first novel, Angels (1983) — and the last of five stories in Johnson’s posthumous collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, makes liberal use of the legendary performer.
In “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist” a literary critic (formerly a pretty good poet) details a friendship spanning several decade with the superior poet and conspiracy enthusiast Mark Ahearn, who’s obsessed with proving that Elvis was in fact murdered and replaced midcareer by his actually alive twin brother. Ahearn robs graves and pays an exorbitant price for a page from Elvis’s doctor’s diary. Twins crowd the story: the fraternal bond between the two writers, Ahearn’s own dead brother, the old World Trade Center, the bipolar artist, mediocrity and greatness. They imbue the fiction with a kind of haunting hope of the life that contains multiple versions of itself, depending on who’s telling, and is therefore inexhaustible. The narrator is teaching a poetry workshop at Columbia University when he first encounters Ahearn, his student. On one of those campus days that begin their friendship the professor tells Ahearn that he’s a wonderful writer, to which he responds, “It’s not the most important thing I do.”
As is typical of Johnson’s writing, these final stories favor situations where people are flung together by instinct or chance rather than a good sense of direction: inmates, addicts (in rehab), writers (in academia), families. “Strangler Bob”—a man’s account of 41 days he spent in an Iowa penitentiary when he was eighteen—is the weakest of the stories, maybe because it too explicitly articulates Johnson’s magic. Toward the end, the narrator muses about his time served, “While I was kept there I wondered if this place was some kind of intersection for souls.”
“The Starlight on Idaho” comes just before and is far more brilliant. It’s relayed in first person like the rest of the tales, but unfolds through a series of letters composed by 32-year-old Mark “Cass” Cassandra from his California rehab facility, formerly a motel. Whether some of the messages are ever sent—or are written at all—is left open, but we know they record the dictates of Cass’s consciousness, which alone teams with enough voices to fill a group therapy session. In some places Cass is sentimental as can be, comparing love to a hook that pierces a heart (and his is riddled with holes). Elsewhere, in withdrawal and on Antabuse, he comes to suspect he’s Jesus Christ, or possibly the Devil. He muses earnestly to his doctor, “That’s what we gotta do is get down to just one story, the true person we are, and live it all the way out,” before going out of his mind again.
Johnson always wrote as if beyond the grave and at the bottom of one. He wasn’t afraid to own up to large, prophetic emotion, or low-down material suffering. The movement between the two, the trembling exchange of one state of consciousness for another, fixed him an elixir of estranged notes. And he was never stolid over endings, in fact they brought out the best in him, displaying the titanic struggle of his words. He wrote of sleep and wakefulness to evoke the quality of awakening, as in the last lines of Fiskadoro (1985), and of sound and silence in the final passage of his novella Train Dreams, creating music. He wrote about God appearing and disappearing (and that’s revelation), in the close-to-last lines of The Name of the World: “I remain a student of history, more of one than ever, now that our century has torn its way out of its chrysalis and become too beautiful to be examined, too alive to be debated and exploited by played-out intellectuals The important thing is no longer to predict in what way its grand convulsions might next shake us. Now the important thing is to ride it into the sky.” That divine juxtaposition is what I imagine to be the pull of Elvis’s immortal soul on Denis Johnson, though it doubtless ran deeper than I could interpret, as so much that tied him to this world did.
After Johnson died, I read what those who’d known him, or exalted his work from afar—usually a combination—had to say about the great author (the eulogies far outweigh the interviews), and what struck me was how much that man cried in the face of others. The novelist Kelly Luce, a former student of Johnson’s at The Michener Center, remembered he cried once in class while talking about how hard writing is. The memoirist Emily Rapp Black wrote that he teared up in class at a line from Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” And the novelist Alix Ohlin recalled how he wept when his cheeseburger arrived not as he’d ordered it. “It made me smile,” wrote Ohlin, “and now it amazes me to remember it—how little armor he had, how he chose to live without it.”
This discarding of armor was assuredly a lifelong project, and in no other work of Johnson’s I’ve read has he appeared so stripped down. If “Doppelganger Poltergeist” is about sons and brothers, the first might be read as a parable of husbands and fathers, both artistic and familial. (Another story in the collection, “Triumph Over the Grave,” mines these themes, too, with more brazenness and humor.)
In the collection’s lovely title story, the narrator, who works at an ad agency in San Francisco, recounts in meandering fashion some of the hooks in his own heart, and how they’ve dragged him somewhere beyond his middle age. He discusses a journalist friend, Tom Ellis, and a painter friend, Tony Fido, whom he met at the San Diego Museum of Art. There, Tony dismisses the work of Edward Hopper; when the narrator asks him whom he prefers, Tony remarks that “the only painter I admire is God. He’s my biggest influence.” Later, at the American Advertisers Awards in New York City, the narrator mistakes the son of a man he used to work with for his father, but momentarily forgets this lesson and tells the son to say hello to his father anyway, as they part ways. After that the storyteller goes walking through the city, “snow six inches deep,” and eventually follows the wafting tune of a piano into a bar, where he listens to a woman tell him her troubles. He remarks of the spare, cinematic scene, with its “black-and-white” bearing, “I felt the ecstasy of a dancer, but I kept still.” Johnson’s transfixion of ecstasy to the gray page was his gift, and in time it’s become his legacy.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
By Denis Johnson