Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Largesse of Denis Johnson

When Michele responded to my request (entreaty? appeal? plea?) for books, she did so in a grand way.  When I was home (and by home, I mean the Bay Area, because Boston is many things, but it's not quite home, not yet), and I needed books to choose from to make my next drink, I had only to go through the stack of advance copies that were always sent to me by the many terrific publishing reps or editors or publicity people that I had gotten to know after many years of slinging books by the bay.

New environs mean that I need to make new relationships with the good people on this coast, and I've been doing that - but not as well as I should, so it's easier (simpler? smoother? lazier?) to rely on my friends from home, so when Michele offered to send ARCs my way, I said yes.  But I was overwhelmed when they arrived.  Not only had she sent more than a dozen books to me, each had its own sticky note attached to the front.  "Great mystery, rich Cuban culture and recipes," "Her new novel, well done!" "This one is a gem....abt what a 'miracle' would look like in our cynical modern lives."   Each note a wonderful prompt to immediately open the book and start losing myself in it, in the terrific new world created by this author, that author.

Some of the writers were new to me, some old friends, but each book had that note, that accompanying description - except for The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson.  That one had a sticky note attached, like all the rest, but no words.  Just a single, emphatic "!"

Michele could not have known how inextricably tied Mr. Johnson's words are to me, to my writing group.  I told a friend once that Denis Johnson saved my life; specifically, that Jesus' Son saved it. Said friend indicated that I was inclined to melodrama.

This is true.

Jesus' Son brought me the comfort of words, as good books do.  But it also brought me a group a friends, people who appreciated those words as much as I did.  My writing group formed a few years after Jesus' Son came out, and our charismatic leader dug Johnson, maybe more than I did - which is saying something - and it's not as if I used that book as a litmus test before I hitched my wagon to a new group of writers...but maybe I did. We were diverse, with diverse tastes, but there were a few books many of us appreciated together, and even though Jesus' Son was a relative newcomer, we knew then how important it was.  Our bonds, first held by the tenuousness of his words, would strengthen over time, bind some of us tighter than blood or vows, and Denis Johnson played a part in that.  I regret never having had the chance to meet Mr. Johnson, like some of my friends, like my friend Christian K., (of CK I'm especially jealous because he was friends with Mr. Johnson, writers both, on the same field) never had the opportunity to have him sign one of the many of his books that I own - but maybe it's better that way.  Denis Johnson, for me, will always be larger than life, and that's fitting because of the power his words hold.

If you haven't read Jesus' Son, go get yourself a copy.  I'll be here when you get back.  It's made up of 11 stories, bleak in setting, but so full of feeling, of that ridiculous something called heart, and even though heart is such a ridiculous cliche, go on, you read the words and tell me if I'm wrong.  The book is also full of drug and drink, and I've done none of the former but my fair share of the latter, and books drenched in drugs aren't usually hopeful, and if they are they often drip with saccharine

Mr. Johnson is never sickly sweet.

His last offering, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, arrives posthumously.  While so many books that are released after their authors have died feel incomplete because in fact they were incomplete, Largesse feels fully realized, a finished coda to a remarkable career.

I won't say that the stories are more mature than the ones you'll find in Jesus' Son, because that diminishes the earlier work.  But they do feel, rightly so, to have been constructed by an older hand.  The characters, like their author, have aged - marvelously so.


For his cocktail, I took inspiration from the title story.  It's separated into ten parts, and Tony Fido is featured in more than one of those.  Our narrator seems to believe that Tony is Armenian.  Of this he is certain.  He's also wrong.  Tony is Greek.  Don't believe me?  One of the five people who attends Tony's memorial also thought Tony was Greek (and that person was right).  The woman who informs our narrator that Tony took his life is named Rebecca Stamos.  And that's Greek.  Tony's house had been in his family since 1939.  He thought it was jinxed, though, and no one is more superstitious than a Greek.  Tony says:

        "First Spiro--Spiro watched it till he died. Mom watched it till she died.
        My sister watched it till she died. Now I'll be here till I die."

Spiro?  That first owner of Tony's house?  Show me a Spiro who ain't Greek and I'll buy you a drink - like our cocktail this evening, Tony's Best Friend, named for our narrator - though when he's informed by one of the woman attending the memorial that Tony considered him his best friend, the narrator is confused.  "Tony's best friend?  [He wonders.]  I hardly knew him." And that's the kind of off-kilter realization that peppers these stories, so pull up a chair, prop open your book, and get to reading.  I'll be over here mixing up your drink - awash with Greek ingredients in honor of Tony.

Tony's Best Friend

2 oz Metaxa
1 barspoon Ouzo
1 sugar cube
Lemon peel for garnish

Saturate sugar cube with Ouzo at the bottom of a glass.  Muddle until sugar is dissolved.  Add Metaxa and ice.  Stir until chilled.  Twist lemon over drink.  Rub peel on rim of glass then use as garnish.

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