Books

Hilton Als, White Girls: Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

Jane Graham revels in the company of two very different American giants

The first time you read Hilton Als, it’s a revelation; the kind that comes, at most, just once a year. You wonder where this guy has been all your life. As an critic and essayist (he won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism last year, and is the New Yorker’s chief theatre critic) he is both a startlingly insightful intellectual and a friendly, open discloser of generous frankness.

That he is a true heavyweight, whose language is often academic, and whose frame of reference is as wide as it is deep (Flannery O’Connor, Jean Michel Basquiat, Malcolm X, Eminem) should not put off the reader who is not au fait with critical studies. His constant striving to connect personally with his audience, to freely admit his own failings and investigate his personal longings, makes him as approachable, and enjoyable, as his flawed subjects.

In his new collection, White Girls, Als is on top form. It’s typical of his approach, unusually inward looking for a literary critic, that his take on much-scrutinised artists still provides new insights and surprises. The gay, black, American son of Caribbean immigrants, Als is fascinated by ‘otherness’ but also by unexpected ‘twinships’ which he finds in the most unlikely places.

What makes Als compelling is the sheer dazzling brilliance of his writing; visceral and poetic, big-hearted, hot-headed and fierce

The first, long, piece in White Girls is the story of his obsessive relationship with a straight man with whom he has spent three decades discussing family, art and philosophy, and whom he emulates and reveres with an almost pathetic neediness (“I was always starving for him”). He writes of ‘SL’ with a devotional detail few of us will ever enjoy from a partner, throwing out the kind of profound observations that only a born writer is capable of. In fact, his truest twinship is with writing itself, that great mirror and validator. He is ‘half living life so I can get down to really living it by writing about it.’

The opening feature – autobiographical, confessional – is unique within the collection. But it very effectively introduces the cool, likeable, edifying voice which will guide us through the following, ostensibly more standard, essays. Als tosses around references to high art and pop culture as liberally as he draws upon his own experience, and that of his friends and family.

It is the authenticity of his voice, as well as his finding connections uncommon among black male journalists (not many dream of having Courtney Love album tracks accompany them down the aisle) which make him so compelling. That, and the sheer dazzling brilliance of his writing; visceral and poetic, big-hearted, hot-headed and fierce. In the end I just wanted to hang out with him, soak his enormous personality in, go to the movies with him and play him some tunes. Some guy, some doll.

American writer Denis Johnson wrote a number of acclaimed novels and poems before he died in May last year, but it’s his knockout short story collection, Jesus’ Son, published 25 years ago, which will secure his place in the grand canon. His final set of stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, burn just as brightly. His sass and wit, his delectable scene-setting and effortless creation of instantly believable, enchanting characters – all provide the grounds for his ultimate faith in the world’s worth. His writing is life-enhancing, like being suddenly hit by a marvellous trick of the light. I urge you to read this. I can’t imagine anyone with any kind of sensitivity to words or people not enjoying it.

Hilton Als, White Girls (Penguin, £9.99)

Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (Jonathan Cape, £14.99)

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi review – electrifying, experimental writing
Books

Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi review – electrifying, experimental writing

The Hearing Test by Eliza Barry Callahan review – a droll insight into a year of loss
Books

The Hearing Test by Eliza Barry Callahan review – a droll insight into a year of loss

Top 5 books about the British seaside, chosen by crime writer William Shaw
Books

Top 5 books about the British seaside, chosen by crime writer William Shaw

The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard review – the moral conundrums of coming of age
Books

The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard review – the moral conundrums of coming of age

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know