by BJW Nashe
Imagine you are a man sitting on death row, convicted of murdering another man during an armed robbery. In the months leading up to your execution, a woman — the cousin of a fellow inmate — starts corresponding with you. Soon she is visiting you in prison. You learn that she works at a sports bar, belongs to a church, and is studying to get her real estate license. She brings you books to read — Dickens, Twain, Hemingway. Because of her, you no longer feel so lonely and fearful. You both fall in love with each other and decide to get married in a simple ceremony at the prison. Your death by lethal injection is imminent, but your new wife has brought meaning to your life. Your admiration for her outweighs any negative thoughts. You are prepared to die a proud and happy man.
What a great story about the transformative power of love even in the gravest of circumstances. Sometimes things get complicated, however. Truly happy endings can be hard to come by.
What if your new wife, for instance, was not the person she portrayed herself to be? What if she had lied to you and created a false persona to gain your love and trust? What if she didn’t work at a sports bar or belong to a church or take classes in real estate? What if her actual job was something far different — an occupation many in fact would disapprove of? What if she decided to hide the truth from you in order to make you happy? Would you feel cheated? Or would you rather finish your life without knowing the truth?
This is one of the quandaries explored in Denis Johnson’s first new story in several years, a tour de force called “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” which appears in the March 3 issue of The New Yorker.
Denis Johnson is a gutsy, versatile writer — a gritty realist with a powerful visionary streak. He is best known for portraying idiosyncratic characters struggling with moral uncertainty and spiritual corruption — often in highly complex and hostile settings. Jesus’ Son (1992) — a group of loosely linked tales based on Johnson’s own misspent youth as an alcoholic and drug addict — is widely considered a masterpiece of the short story form. Tree of Smoke, an epic novel of the Vietnam War that Johnson worked on for 20 years, won the National Book Award in 2007. He has also published several books of poetry and a collection of essays. His plays have been performed in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle.
Johnson’s work tends to revolve around society’s lowlifes and castaways. “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” however, finds him venturing toward the upper end of the social spectrum. He takes a fairly standard New Yorker premise — the inner discontent of educated, affluent Americans — and tests it in the laboratory of his own feverish imagination, as if hoping to gain some deeper understanding of his chosen subject. Whether he succeeds or not will largely depend upon the reader’s interpretation. Digesting Johnson’s prose can be likened to a zen exercise. He rigorously explores the absurdities of modern life, but refuses to settle for simple meanings or easy solutions. In fact, he tends to leave us with the sense that much of what we cling to as meaningful in our daily lives is fraudulent and delusional.
Plenty of fraudulence is exposed in “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.” The part about truth, lies, and death row romance is just one of ten vignettes that comprise the story. Each vignette offers a discreet glimpse into the troubled life of the narrator — a 65 year-old advertising executive named Bill Whitman, who achieved success in New York as a producer of television commercials, then relocated to the more laid-back setting of San Diego, where he designs glossy brochures for vacation resorts. Whitman comes across as an updated — but not very well-aged — version of Don Draper in “Mad Men,” with a dash of T.S. Eliot’s anguished Prufrock thrown in for good measure. He’s a company man past his prime, genuflecting on incidents from his life that he seems oddly detached from, like a ghost or a sleepwalker drifting through various stage sets. Everything seems pointless and futile to him. Like Prufrock, he feels no more significant than “a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
A recurring motif in Whitman’s narration is confusion and apathy regarding truth and falsehood, and what this means in terms of engaging meaningfully with the world. All around him the nature of truth appears degraded, and the value of fiction is called into question. Whitman is by no means insane, yet he is disconnected from reality in subtle ways. When a wealthy friend gets drunk at a dinner party and decides to burn a valuable painting in the fireplace just for the hell of it — because he owns the painting, God damn it — Whitman makes no attempt to stop the man. Then he is puzzled by his inaction. Sure, he admires fine art; so why did he just sit there and watch the painting go up in flames?
Whitman tells us that his career has been trivial, yet he is happy to fly to New York to receive an award for his achievements in advertising. Once there, he strolls around downtown with a feeling of self-satisfaction. When he runs into the son of one of his old colleagues, he asks how the old guy is doing. Well, the son says, the old guy passed away some time ago. A bit later, as they part ways, Whitman blurts out, without knowing why, “Tell your father I said hello.” Likewise, when he is informed that a “primitive” artist named Tony Fido who he used to visit regularly has committed suicide, Whitman says, “I don’t want to know how. Don’t tell me how.” Then he tells us he can’t imagine why he said that. At Tony’s memorial service, when someone remarks that Tony used to refer to Whitman as his “best friend,” Whitman is confused. “I hardly knew him.”
The most outrageous example of Whitman’s reality-disconnect occurs in the vignette titled “Farewell.” Here Whitman receives a phone call from one of his ex-wives — Virginia or “Ginny” — who has not spoken to him in 40 years. The reason she is calling him now is to share some important news: she is terminally ill and close to death. Her affairs are in order, the hospice staff are in attendance, and the end is near. She tells Whitman she may be incapable of forgiving him for all of his lies and infidelities, but she would prefer to let go of her bitterness before she dies. Whitman tells her he understands. He explains that he hates the many ways he stole her “right to the truth.” The story appears to be opening up for a genuine, heartfelt moment.
Then Johnson yanks the rug out from under us, casting the whole scene into doubt and absurdity. Whitman is suddenly anxious and confused about who he is really talking to. Is this his first wife, Ginny, or is it his second wife, Jenny? He can’t be sure. He puts the phone down for a minute to gather his thoughts, but he can’t sort them out. When he picks up again, the line is dead. Oh well, he decides, it doesn’t really matter. “We’d had our talk, and Ginny or Jenny, whichever, had recognized herself in my frank apologies, and she’d been satisfied — because, after all, both sets of crimes had been the same.” As long as certain words can be made to fit the occasion and create a desired effect, who cares about truth? It’s sort of like advertising. Whitman goes to bed early, evidently unmoved by his ex-wife’s approaching death. He has weird dreams about dinosaurs and bat caves and strange natives — the stuff of cartoons.
The next vignette, called “Widow,” contains the part about death row romance. Johnson frames this unsettling tale in a fascinating way. The condemned prisoner’s “happy” marriage comes to us as an anecdote Whitman hears from one of his friends, whose occupation sounds out a key minor chord within the truth-versus-fiction motif:
“I was having lunch one day with my friend Tom Ellis, a journalist — just catching up. He said that he was writing a two-act drama based on interviews he’d taped while gathering material for an article on the death penalty, two interviews in particular.”
The journalist tells Whitman that he first interviewed a prison inmate — a man named William Donald Mason — who had been sentenced to death for killing a guard taken hostage during a bank robbery in Virginia. On the last full day of the prisoner’s life — Mason was scheduled to die the next day at noon — the journalist quizzed him on a variety of topics. These included “his views on the death penalty — Mason was against it, and his opinion as to an afterlife — Mason was for it.” The prisoner spoke in admiration of his wife, explaining how they had met and got married while he was on death row. She and Mason had already said their farewells to each other.
The journalist, Ellis, came away from the interview impressed with Mason’s composure. In spite of the grim circumstances, the condemned man seemed “calm and relaxed.” The journalist felt a “fierce, unexpected kinship with this man so close to the end.” The next day, he tells Whitman, everything proceeded according to schedule, and Mason was executed.
A week later, the journalist went to interview Mason’s widow, only to find that “much of what she’d told her husband was false.” She had told him a bunch of lies in order to please him. The truth of the matter was she made her living in Norfolk by working in “a basement sex emporium near the waterfront, in a one-on-one peep show.” To conduct the interview, the journalist had to fork over twenty bucks, descend a narrow stairway “lit with purple bulbs,” and then take a seat inside a small room, facing a curtained window.
“He was shocked when the curtain vanished upward to reveal the woman already completely nude, sitting on a stool inside a padded booth. Then it was her turn to be shocked, when Ellis introduced himself as a man who’d shared an hour or two of her husband’s last full day on earth.”
With the awkward introductions over, she and Ellis launched into an animated discussion about “the prisoner’s wishes and dreams, his happiest memories and his childhood grief, the kinds of things a man shares only with his wife.” Throughout the interview, she remained naked, sitting on the stool They were speaking into telephone handsets, separated by a wall of glass, which she would occasionally reach out to touch with her free hand. They chatted about the deception underlying her marriage to Mason.
“As for having told so many lies to the man she married — that was one of the things she laughed about. She seemed to assume that everyone else would have done the same. In addition to her bogus employment and her imaginary studies in real estate, she’d endowed herself with a religious soul and joined a nonexistent church. Thanks to all her fabrications, William Donald Mason had died a proud and happy husband.”
Just as the journalist had unexpectedly bonded with the “condemned killer” during his death row interview, now he ended up feeling very close to the killer’s widow inside the peep show booth. Whitman asks him point-blank if he made love to her, and his response is shamelessly revealing. He says no, he didn’t have sex with her…
“… but he’d wanted to, he certainly had, and he was convinced that the naked widow had felt the same, though you weren’t allowed to touch the girls in those places, and this dialogue, in fact both of them — the death-row interview and the interview with the naked widow — had taken place through glass partitions made to withstand any kind of passionate assault.”
The journalist tells Whitman that at the time he was too ashamed to tell the widow what he desired, but “now he regretted his shyness.” He assures Whitman that in the play he is writing based on the two interviews, “the second act would end differently.” From there, Whitman and Ellis wander into a discussion about the difference between repentance and regret. “Then, as sometimes happens in a San Diego cafe — more often than you’d think — we were interrupted by a beautiful young woman selling roses.” With that, the vignette comes to an end.
“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” challenges us to think about where we stand in regard to truth versus fiction. Even if we never end up on death row, we still are faced with the fact of our own mortality. Would we rather live out the rest of our lives clinging to pleasant illusions, just because they might make us happy? Or do we feel like we have a right to the truth? Whitman is so disconnected from reality that he can’t think clearly about the issue. He seems to want to have it both ways. On one hand, he hates himself for lying to his former wives. Yet he seems willing to accept the value of the lies told by the “naked widow” to her convict spouse, because they made the guy happy. Ellis, the journalist supposedly writing an article on the death penalty, instead ends up fantasizing about having sex with the convict’s widow. He is only interested in truth and lies insofar as the information involved can be exploited to suit his own purposes.
How can anyone engage meaningfully with serious life-and-death issues without a clear notion of the value of the truth? Without this, we are left with gossip and spin and fantasies and delusions and propaganda — all of the debased language games of politics, entertainment, and advertising.
In this remarkable story, Denis Johnson shows us that deception and falsehood might lead to to some form of happiness or relief in the face of suffering and death. In the process, however, life is stripped of true meaning and turned into a kind of charade — which is a heavy price to pay, and we have to wonder whether it’s worth it.
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