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The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories

With the death of National Book Award-winner Denis Johnson (Tree of Smoke) in May 2017, one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary American fiction was silenced. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, a collection of five short stories that showcases his memorable style, will delight his fans and should attract new readers to his work.

Drug addiction, alcoholism and other aberrant behaviors plague Johnson's characters. Indeed, two of the stories are set in a rehabilitation center and a county lockup, neither of whose residents appear to be on the path to recovery or redemption. Illness, murder, suicide and death in other forms are recurring events, and yet the stories are more noteworthy for their smart, bleak humor than for their grimness. Representative of these qualities is "The Starlight on Idaho." In it, Mark Cassandra, relying principally on letters to relatives, friends, Pope John Paul II and Satan, describes his "third time in rehab"--but "first time to make it past four days"--at the Starlight Recovery Center, a converted motel in Ukiah, Calif.: "a salvage yard for people who totaled their souls." Bill Whitman, an ad man in the twilight of his career, narrates the collection's title story. He is in New York City to collect an award for his work when the story delivers an edgy assortment of incidents involving a death row inmate, the suicide of a prominent painter and the confusion engendered by a phone call from Bill's dying ex-wife, their first conversation in 40 years.

Denis Johnson's world isn't necessarily one in which anyone would want to live, but, as these vivid stories illustrate, it's a most entertaining place to visit. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer