The New, the Old and the Obscure 

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Denis Johnson, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” (2019)

Perhaps overlooked or overshadowed by the author’s death in 2017, Denis Johnson’s posthumously published second collection of stories stands alone as a brilliant work of fiction from an author we lost too soon.

Johnson came to national prominence after the 1992 publication of “Jesus’ Son,” his wildly successful debut collection, which reads more like a short novel, memoir and confession, than a book of short stories, and is arguably one of the best books of the 20th century. Mixed with blunt realism and dark humor, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” covers similar ground as “Jesus’ Son,” in that Johnson’s characters battle with physical and mental abuse, sometimes self-inflicted, but with the depth of feeling of someone older, and aware that perhaps they’re not much wiser after all.

But of this, and in all of his great work, Johnson might have replied the way the narrator in his story, “Triumph Over the Grave,” replies: “It doesn’t matter. The world keeps turning. It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.”

Toni Morrison “Jazz” (1992)

Like the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera, the Nobel Prize recipient and one of the world’s greatest storytellers, Toni Morrison evokes a dream one feels completely but doesn’t quite remember. Morrison not only reveals the complexities of character but of time and place, her voice like a call from the forgotten. In “Jazz,” the second novel in her “Beloved” trilogy, Morrison explores themes of love, betrayal, obsession, death and the past’s impact on the present, in late 1920s Harlem. At times, “Jazz,” like the music, feels chaotic, as the story is told from the perspectives of different narrators and points of view. But this is also the novel’s greatest strength, because each voice is compelling, informative and unreliable.

A writer is always improvising, though what sets Morrison apart from other writers is her ability to take the audience with her so that, as readers, we feel as though we are alongside the narrators in “Jazz,” stepping in and out of their worlds, thoughts and dreams. She isn’t trying to shock or wake up the masses so much as allow us into a new tribe, one as complex as our own, so that the pain is more visceral and singularly felt, rather than spread thin and treated as an historical marker. Morrison’s books deserve to be read and reread. Her words stun, floor and empower. “What’s the world for you if you can’t make it up the way you want it?” she said.

Lee K. Abbott “Dreams of Distant Lives” (1990)

Of the writers who passed away this year, I would say this last one had the biggest influence on my own life. I met Abbott at the New York State Summer writer’s institute in 2007, where he was teaching. His approach to writing is very much like the stories in his fourth collection, “Dreams of Distant Live” — deceptively simple. For someone not raised in the arts, reading Abbott is like a lifeline. He seems to revel in the beautiful ugly worlds of commonplace towns, local politics and sports. Focusing his work largely in his home state of New Mexico, many of his stories have to do with love, and how one handles love over time.

Abbott wrote six collections of stories in his lifetime, many of which are featured in his 2006 collection of new and selected work, “All Things, All at Once,” but it is in this fourth collection that I find Abbott at his best.

In the title story, a recently separated husband wakes in the middle of the night to look for his wife. But instead of seeing that she’s not there and going back to bed, or worse, sitting on the toilet and crying, Abbott has the narrator call her name, until he realizes what he knew all along.

“Her name was only a word given to an object that wasn’t here anymore. It was a word that stood for an absence, like darkness itself, that had made way for the waking life.”


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