Sunday, March 26, 2017

"Emergency" (1991)

Read story by Denis Johnson online.

Denis Johnson's story takes place, loosely speaking, in a hospital emergency room, where the orderly and ward clerk on duty steal drugs, enter Hunter Thompson mental states, and carry on. The ward clerk is also the first-person narrator (unnamed). You feel reverberations of Ken Kesey in the setting, and of Thompson in the drug effects. The nurse on duty ("Nurse") is a better person that Nurse Ratched, but not by much. The doctors are busy and officious. The emergency room is generally slow, there's not much happening, which makes it seem more unlikely and closer to metaphorical, and that might weaken it a little. I would be surprised if this isn't based on Johnson's life experience—the hospital setting feels right in many ways. But then come emergencies that feel suspiciously like urban legends. A man shows up with a knife plunged to the hilt into his head above one eye. He says his vision is not affected but he can't make a fist. His and everyone's thought is brain damage. But the anecdote turns out to be little more than another joke about Georgie, the orderly, who is as close as this episodic story gets to a main character. He's high as a naked jaybird and hallucinating, operating on instincts which comically prove out. I liked the story a little more when it left the hospital. The events it recounts are not believable, but I hung with the suspension of disbelief, and was rewarded by indulgent images and flights that somehow work, such as coming upon a drive-in theater in a winter storm, where the movie plays to no one. In his collection that includes this story, Jesus' Son, Johnson is like the Nick Tosches of fiction writers; or maybe that should be that Tosches is the Denis Johnson of rock critics. He's erratic. He's wild. His punches often miss. But when they land they make a serious impact—life-changing, in small fragmented ways, but life-changing. With this particular story, for me, it's more the art. It's small-scale in impact, but real too. I think there's better in Jesus' Son. Yet for every cooptation of Kesey or Hunter Thompson, there's language that surpasses even what they did, with an imagination fiercer and more enveloping. Raymond Carver is another obvious source. It's the details that tell, not the lunacy. It's the getting lost, not the drugs. The hospital is there because it has to be a hospital, because of the necessity of grounding Georgie's closing declaration in something tangible. A hitchhiker they have picked up asks Georgie what he does. "I save lives," he says. It's a joke but it's also true. And it's true in many different ways—just as it's also untrue in many different ways.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson

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