During the first two weeks of Short Story Month, I have received several contributions to my whimsical Collection Giveaway contest “Puzzle the Prof.” During the last two weeks of May, I will respond to some of them before awarding two books, Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson and my own The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice to the contestant whose query was most challenging to me.
The first query is from Nathan, who is puzzled about why Denis Johnson’s well-known story “Emergency” is acclaimed as a “great” piece of fiction. He says he was born and grew up in a foreign country before moving to the U.S., which, he says, may be part of the reason he doesn’t "get" contemporary American short stories sometimes. Nathan says, “We often talk about conflict as the basic building block of a dramatic scene: somebody wants something and is having trouble getting it. I can't really tell what it is anybody wants in this story, let alone what's getting in the way to fulfill that. Seems like random things just keep happening to them (guy with knife in the eye, pregnant bunny, hitchhiker, etc.), and there's not much cause-and-effect (another element we're always told to have). I don't really sympathize with any characters, and there's nothing much in the story I look forward to finding out. The ending leaves me unsatisfied.”
I can sympathize with Nathan’s response to “Emergency.” The first couple of times I read it, I too felt puzzled about its popularity. I also could not really sympathize with any of the characters and did not care much about what happened in the story. I should add that, as a guy whose only experience with drugs is a couple of shared joints in the sixties, I have never been very much interested in “druggie” stories. Some may think “Emergency” is so popular because, as Tobias Wolff once said on the New Yorker’s fiction podcast, that it “caught the fag end of the sixties,” but as soon as Wolff said that, he quickly added that the story is a “classic,” which “everyone” seems to have read because of “the art.” (Wolff included the story, which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1991, in The Vintage Book of American Short Stories, which he edited)
The story may be popular because it reflects a certain period in American culture, but that does not make it a great story. On the surface, the story may appeal to a certain group of readers who relish the antics of young drug-taking males who seem sometimes to live in a comic alternate reality, especially when they triumph over the more cautious representatives of sober reality. It’s a pleasure when Georgia pulls the knife out of the guy’s eye without thinking about it, while the wimpy doctor on duty says he is not touching the guy because he knows his limits. In reality, it’s stupid, of course; but in a fiction, it’s a pleasure.
And, since we accept the drug-induced alternate reality of the story, we think it’s funny when we read the line, “Around 3:30 a.m. a guy with a knife in his eye came in.” It just seems comically right when the nurse says “”We’d better get you lying down,” and the man says, “Okay, I’m certainly ready for something like that.” Denis Johnson himself plays the guy with the knife in his eye in the film version of Jesus’ Son and delivers a great comic deadpan line when he nurse asks him if he wants to call the police: “Not unless I die,” he says after thinking about it a few seconds. The slapstick surreal nature of the story is emphasized when the doctor on duty comes in, sees the knife sticking out of the guy’s eye, and asks, “What seems to be the trouble?”
Another reason the story is so well known is because it is one of several stories in the collection Jesus’ Son which focuses on the central character known as “Fuckhead,” who is continually drugged-out and thus always slightly on the fringe of reality. Because readers prefer to read continuous novels rather than short, abrupt stories, a collection that seems to be made up of connected chapter-like stories is often attractive. Readers get the continuity appeal of the novel, but because the story-like sections are often more concise and carefully written than novel chapters, they also often get the pleasure of carefully controlled prose and a tightly controlled structure.
However, on a deeper level, the story is not a good short story only because of anti-establishment comic unreality and novel-like continuity, but because of the way its prose explores a universal theme using strategies that are common to the short story as a genre.
The story opens with the orderly Georgie, who is obviously already stoned, mopping the emergency room floor, complaining, “Jesus, there’s a lot of blood here,” asking, “What the hell were they doing in here?” When Fuckhead says they were performing surgery, Georgie cries, “”There’s so much goop inside of us man, and it all wants to come out.” When Fuckhead asks him why he is crying, Georgie says, “What am I crying for? Jesus. Wow, oh boy, perfect.” Georgie, whose shoes seems to squish with all the blood and can never seem to get it all mopped up, has, of course, seen what others refuse or fear to see—that we are always in the midst of an emergency, that we are all born to die, that the blood inside our bodies is bound to come out; no one can escape that inevitability. And that, indeed, is something to cry about, or laugh about.
It’s a nice irony that Georgie sees what others do not, since “seeing” or “not seeing” is a theme that repeats throughout the story. After all, the man with the knife in his eye has been stabbed by his wife for seeing something he should not see—peeping at the lady next door while she was sunbathing. And of course, the stabbed eye is his good eye, since his other one is made of something artificial. When the doctor on duty comes in and asks what the trouble is, he obviously cannot see anything.
A related theme in the story has to do with spiritual reality versus ordinary reality. When Fuckhead and Georgie go outside to lie in the bed of Georgie’s pickup truck, Georgie wants to go to a church, saying, “I’d like to worship.” Fuckhead wants to go to a county fair, which they do, or maybe they don’t. Given the drug-induced hallucinatory nature of the story, it is not always clear what is happening and what is being imagined. While on the road, they get lost; Georgie cannot remember the rides at the fair and hits a jackrabbit. Given one of the story’s themes, Fuckhead asks Georgie, “Are you completely blind?”
The theme of death introduced at the beginning by the blood-drenched emergency room is continued here with the dead rabbit. To emphasize this theme even more, the rabbit is pregnant—suggesting death-in-life or life-in-death. (Katherine Anne Porter has a wonderful story entitled “The Grave,” in which a young boy skins a rabbit, only to find unborn rabbits inside.) Fuckhead becomes a sort of surrogate mother to the rabbits that Georgie has saved by putting them under his shirt against his belly.
Once again the theme of seeing is evoked when the two men cannot find the truck in a snowstorm and Fuckhead says, “Georgie, can you see?” To which Georgie replies, “See what? See What?” The spiritual reality theme is further emphasized when Fuckhead seems to see a military graveyard filled with row after row of markers. On the other end of the field, he seems to see angels descending out of a brilliant blue summer sky, “their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity.” But Georgie says, “It’s the drive-in, man…They’re showing movies in a fucking blizzard.” This spiritual reality versus artificial reality theme is related to the comic/horrible, birth/death, seeing/blindness dualities that run throughout the story.
All these themes culminate in three different possible endings of the story. The first one is meditative, when Fuckhead thinks about all these events and wonders if he is remembering them correctly. But, he says, that doesn’t matter. He remembers the next morning when the snow melted off the windshield of the pick-up and he feels the beauty of the morning, thinking, “I could understand how a drowning man might suddenly feel a deep thirst being quenched. Or how a slave might become a friend to his master.” Fuckhead feels a sense of reconciliation and acceptance of life and death, comedy and tragedy here, as he sees a bull elk standing in the pasture “giving off an air of authority and stupidity. And a coyote jogged across the pasture and faded away among the saplings.”
The second possible ending has the two men back at the hospital, listening to the Twenty-Third Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer over the intercom, and running into the man with the knife in his head, who has been released from the hospital. “It could have been worse,” says the nurse. “It’s just a miracle you didn’t end up sightless or at least dead.” When the man shakes Georgie’s hand, Georgie does not know him, asking, “Who are you supposed to be?” It’s a great question, perfectly phrased, since it is a question none of us can ever really answer. We don’t know who we are, much less who we are supposed to be.
The final ending comes earlier when on the way back to the hospital, they pick up a hitchhiker named Hardee, a boy Fuckhead knows. When they stop the truck, he climbs “slowly up out of the fields as out of the mouth of a volcano.” (Great image, it seems to me, of resurrection from the depths of the inferno). Hardee says he has been working on a bee farm. When Fuckhead asks, “Do those things sting you?” he replies, “Not like you’d think. You’re part of their daily drill. It’s all part of a harmony.” And indeed, the whole story has been about an overall harmony—the kind of harmony that integrates all the dualities of the story—the acceptance of death in the midst of life, the comic in the midst of the grotesque, he pain in the midst of the joy of life. That all sounds corny as hell when expressed so flatly, but it seems embedded deeply within every detail of Johnson’s story. The story ends with a punch line that unifies the story: When Hardee says he is AWOL and needs to get to Canada, Georgie says, “We’ll get you there…. I think I know some people.” Maybe he does and maybe he doesn’t. But it’s a good goal. After a while, when Hardee asks Georgie, “What do you do for a job,” Georgie replies, “I save lives.”
It’s the only job worth having.
I thank Nathan for getting me to read “Emergency” again. I confess I have never really cared for Jesus’ Son in general or “Emergency” in particular. But that is my fault, not Denis Johnson’s. After spending some more time with it, I now better understand the tension in the story between the sacred and the profane, the comic and the grotesque, sympathy and judgment. What I first saw as merely a self-indulgent story of drugged-out and uncaring clichéd characters, I now see as a story of thematic complexity and stylistic precision. I think “Emergency” is a fine example of how short stories often require careful and repeated reading and close and concentrated attention. I hope this discussion leads Nathan back to take another look at the story.