‘The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden’ by Denis Johnson

Lovers of flash fiction might admire the way this story is structured, made up of a series of “vignettes” Denis Johnson explains modestly in the contributors’ notes in The Best American Short Stories 2015 that “came together in a sort of arrangement.” There are ten interconnected parts to the story, told by the same contemplative narrator, Bill Whitman, who works in TV advertising, each about two pages long, and each a gem of a story in itself. It is, I believe, the work of a master at the height of his powers. There are so many great lines I could quote, but for me this from the fourth section titled “Farewell” seems to get to the heart of the matter when the narrator asks: “I wonder if like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you,…” This story is indeed mysterious and profound, sometimes very funny, and each time I read it I find something new and surprising that I hadn’t somehow noticed before. The ending, though, always makes me gasp and leaves me feeling hollowed out. A work of a genius in my view.

First published in The New Yorker, February 2014, and available to subscribers to read hereCollected in The Best American Short Stories, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2015, and The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden, Random House 2018

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