17 Books to Pick Up This Winter
Doubting daughters, enterprising émigrés, lost lovers.
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The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
If Walt Whitman was intoxicated by America, Denis Johnson was hungover and reaching for some hair of the dog. The writer's posthumous collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is a tour de force of compression and prowess, teasing out pure melodies from dissonant American dreams. Johnson's lifelong affinity for doomed outsiders remains evident here, as does his brilliance at experimenting with form. An ad exec assesses his life in a jigsawlike novella. An addict in rehab duels with past demons through a series of manic letters. And in an especially virtuosic turn—linked stories within a story—an aging author wanders a graveyard of the mind, recounting loved ones' deaths while staring down his own. Throughout, a dark lyricism prevails, with echoes of Johnson's mentor, Raymond Carver. Like Carver's, Johnson's characters brood over a fallen world and the grim fate they're certain awaits them. Gorgeously written, unflinchingly brave, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden gestures "toward the roaring extinction into which ocean, earth, and sky had disappeared." With his reputation sealed by the collection Jesus' Son and his 2007 National Book Award–winning Tree of Smoke, Johnson leaves a poignant elegy, piercing in its gallows humor and stark beauty.
— Hamilton Cain