"The Largesse of the Sea Maiden" stories by Denis Johnson

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This posthumous collection by Denis Johnson displays a series of stances toward death: courting it, anticipating it, solving its puzzles, parsing out how it affects kinship. One clever story, “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” explores the lengths to which one young man will go to find his brother’s purported stillborn twin. It is the most fully rounded and ambitious piece of the lot. Other selections have a less clarified point, sometimes too elusive for this reader.

In the title story, Bill Whitman, an advertising executive, wins an award for work done for TV. He desultorily recalls certain salient events of his life, and wishes, in his 60s, that he could forget more of it. In a section called “Mermaid,” Bill accepts the award, is amused when he is propositioned by another man in the rest room, and walks uptown through new-fallen snow. He eventually finds a bar open where a pianist plays a traditional tune, and an “ample, attractive” blond woman sits at a table in tears. She beckons him over to sit with her, since it’s only the two of them, not counting the bartender and the piano player.

Two stories, called “The Starlight on Idaho,” and “Strangler Bob” have incarceration in common, where we learn the hopeless beginnings and the self-destructive tendencies of the wretches who populate jails and rehab centers. These are vivid, as is everything else Johnson writes. But do not look for sympathetic characters or redemption here.

The ironically titled “Triumph Over the Grave” recounts the last days of several writer acquaintances. It features a first-person writer and teacher who seems to know, or know of, quite a few other writers in their last months of life. The realism of this story makes them sad and highly believable. It seems like a heartfelt, vivid, and well-constructed obituary.

“Doppelgänger, Poltergeist” sweeps through the decades-long friendship between a poet and his mentor-admirer. The poet pursues some ill-advised, one could say crackpot, schemes involving digging up Elvis Presley’s corpse, and proving some far-fetched conspiracy theories about his family and his identity. This story features an engaging twist at the end, and offers more to the reader than the others in the collection, but perhaps not as much as some of the other brilliant, award-winning work Johnson did.

And unless I revisit these pieces later, that last paragraph will have to sum up my feeling about the collection. “Train Dreams,” “Tree of Smoke,” and “The Name of the World” are the three works of his that I will never stop recommending, and remembering fondly. That does not describe this collection, unfortunately.

"The One-in-a-Million Boy" by Monica Wood

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This novel traces the posthumous influence of an 11 year-old boy on a sympathetic set of adults, and traces the effects of his life and death to self-discovery, love, responsibility, and record-setting longevity. It’s a unique, gratifying read, written with intelligence, wisdom, and most of all, charity. The author’s kindness extends to her characters as well as her readers: the love the characters feel for each other reaches the surface in unusual ways. And Monica Wood’s readers feel her kindness through the realistic strivings and the partial and sometimes surprising success they meet with. This is superb.

A shy, unaccomplished 11 year-old Boy Scout visits 104 year-old Ona to assist with chores and record her history, as part of an exercise to earn a merit badge. Ona is Lithuanian and sharp as a tack. She’s lived in the U.S. since 1913, was married to a dull, unloving man for nearly three decades, but has nevertheless lived an interesting life. After the boy’s passing, his father Quinn takes over. First he takes on the chores, and eventually he fills a void which the youngster’s passing has created. 

Quinn is in many ways the focus of the story. He performs chores around the house for Ona scrupulously at first, before their relationship gels into a friendship. Quinn’s marriage has fractured - twice - but Ona observes Quinn’s continuing devotion to his ex-wife Belle. She finds she admires Quinn’s perseverance and kindness, and allows him to help her pursue her plan to re-qualify for her driver’s license. This license is a wonderful trope by Wood, a hard encapsulation of Ona’s determined will to continue to function in the world despite her age.

“The One-in-a-Million Boy” has such a big heart: it has space for everyone’s ambitions, everyone’s failings, everyone’s redemption, everyone’s love. I recommend this book as heartily as I have before for Wood, one of my favorites. “My Only Story” is superb, “Any Bitter Thing” gratifying and balanced, but “The One-in-a-Million Boy” takes the cake. A multiple award winner, and my new favorite among Wood’s oeuvre, be sure to take this one up!