“The Starlight on Idaho” is the second of five stories in Denis Johnson’s collection The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. Apart from the collection’s title story (which I wrote about here), “The Starlight on Idaho” is the only piece in Largesse to have been previously published (in a different form in a 2007 issue Playboy). You can read the story online in full here, and watch/hear Johnson read excerpts from it in this video:
My impression after reading Largesse the first time was that “Starlight” was a good story, but also perhaps the weakest in the collection. Reading it again this afternoon, I see its inclusion in Largesse as vital. “Starlight” engages with the book’s overall themes of repentance, regret, and forgiveness—as well as the act of writing itself—more overtly than the other four stories in Largesse. In a sense, the story bridges Johnson’s earlier work (like Angels and Jesus’ Son) more directly to the late (and more complex) narratives in Largesse, like “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist” and “Triumph Over the Grave.”
The title of the story refers not to the literal starlight on the literal state of Idaho (where Johnson lived for some years), but rather to the “Starlight Addiction Recovery Center on Idaho Avenue, in its glory days better known as the Starlight Motel.” The story’s narrator is Cass—Mark Cassandra—and he is in this California rehab “because the last four years have really kicked [his] ass.” Cass summarizes those four years a few times in “Starlight,” including this charming list:
Just to sketch out the last four years – broke, lost, detox, homeless in Texas, shot in the ribs by a thirty-eight, mooching off the charity of Dad in Ukiah, detox again, run over (I think, I’m pretty sure, I can’t remember) shot again, detox right now one more time again.
Our hero has hit rock bottom and now writes to family members, friends, the devil, and other folks. As he puts it, Cass is “writing letters to each one of you lucky winners who has a hook in my heart.” The epistolary form allows Johnson to explore issues of regret and religion through the lens of a defiant but wrecked soul, who at one point tells his reader that “I’m not about to get on my knees.”
Cass’s detox is a metaphorical descent into hell. He writes to Pope John Paul; he writes to Satan. At one point in the middle of a letter to his brother, he sneaks in a letter to God:
Excuse me, I have to burn this page and write a letter to God while it’s on fire. Question is, God, where are you? What the fuck on earth do you think you’re doing, man? We are in HELL down here, HELL down here, HELL. You know? Where’s Superman?
“The Starlight on Idaho” ultimately reads like one long letter to God. We learn much about Cass’s family (fractured, foul, awful), but Cass never uses them as an excuse for his behavior. He knows that his alcoholism and drug abuse “was a button [he] could push to destroy the known world.” Letter writing is part of restoring Cass to the world again. He has to find a way to tell his story.
Similarly, listening to other people’s stories is part of Cass’s recovery. Key scenes in “Starlight” feature Cass attending to other people’s tales and empathizing with them. “Starlight” climaxes not with Cass’s own story, but with the story of a man named Howard, a former undercover narc who has royally fucked up his own life. “My story is the amazing truth,” Howard declares, and that story ends with God squeezing Howard’s soul, intensely, always. This squeezing brings Howard closer to God.
Cass tells Howard’s story to his brother “John the Strangest Of All us Cassandras” in the final letter in “Starlight.” In the letter previous—addressed to Satan—Cass signs off as “Mark Cassandra, a more or less Christian.” In the final letter to John, Cass signs off “Your Brother In Christ, Cass.” Is the conversion complete and true? I think so. Johnson loves his characters and often drives them to a place of salvation.
For some readers, this insistence on redemption—and here a specifically Christian redemption—might be a bit too much, even a bit too on the nose. Cass certainly has a Jesus Christ complex. In the depths of detox, he despairs:
Why do I think I might be Jesus Christ and I’m supposed to come here and suffer, really suffer, suffer past your most excruciating fantasies of torment and why do I think everybody’s looking at me because they know this about me?
Johnson lets it drop more than once that our narrator is about to turn 33, as if to underline the point. However, he’s a disciple, not a messiah. He’s Mark Cassandra; his brother’s names are Luke and John. Those guys wrote a few letters, right? And then of course there’s that pagan last name, Cassandra. Is Mark a prophet? And will his prophecies be ignored? Who are they for? Who reads his words? Well, us of course.
“The Starlight on Idaho” may end on a note of religious redemption, but a subtler motif lies under the narrative’s surface. Johnson’s work has never struck me as overtly metafictional, but “Starlight” is clearly about writing itself, and foregrounds writing as vital to Cass’s recovery. Cass and the other “inmates” of the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center are like participants in a writer’s workshop, only one with much higher stakes. These recovering addicts are making their fractured lives cohere through narrative power. The trick of “The Starlight on Idaho” is to withhold the product—the life narrative—and give us instead the process, the pieces, the fragments themselves. Mark Cassandra’s letters may not be addressed to us, but of course we are his readers and his witnesses.