I love any short story that convinces me to believe in its fictional world. My "favorite" short story tends to be the one that’s freshest in my mind. This week, that’s Denis Johnson’s "Emergency." I just listened to a recording of it as part of the New Yorker’s podcast series. (It was read by Tobias Wolff, a writer whose story "A Bullet in the Brain" could have been my pick.)
If you’ve read Jesus’ Son—Johnson’s collection that follows around a drug-addled drifter named Fuckhead—you probably know "Emergency." It’s the one with the guy who walks into an emergency room in the middle of the night with a knife sticking out of his face: "The blade was buried to the hilt in the outside corner of his left eye." That sentence reads like a horror show, but the scene couldn’t be more matter of fact. The victim is relatively calm, and his "vitals," we’re told, "are normal." The problem is the emergency room staff, not just the awestruck, useless Fuckhead but his pal Georgie, tripping his face off from a stash of pills stolen from hospital cabinets.
I hadn’t read Johnson's story in years, and hearing it aloud, it glowed like something brand new. Glow is perhaps a strange word for Johnson's prose, which manages not only to be understated about horrific events (there's also a pregnant rabbit who gets run over by a car, after which Georgie cuts the squirming fetuses from its womb, with the knife that was recently in that guy's eye), but which also approaches something like transcendence as Fuckhead, in his altered state, begins to hallucinate. Perhaps the greatest moment of the story is when he describes, from the passenger’s seat of Georgie's car, a roadside vision:
"an open field that seemed to be a military graveyard, filled with rows and rows of austere, identical markers over soldiers' graves…the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity."
Turns out this is actually a drive-in movie screen flashing a film during an unexpected September blizzard, and those gravestones are really the movie speakers, all lined up and abandoned in the storm. But for a moment, the reader believes in the vision as surely as Fuckhead does.
Every good short story is really about two things—"the situation, and the story," as Vivian Gornick terms it. The story in "Emergency" comprises a kind of circular road trip, as Fuckhead and Georgie wind up back where they started, with only those fuzzy hallucinations to show for their adventure. But its true "situation" becomes clear in the last couple of pages: It’s 1973, the Vietnam War is raging, and these characters are part of a generation in a permanent state of emergency, escaping from a deadly world. A guy Fuckhead knows appears on the side of the road, hitchhiking to Canada, dodging the draft. "Don’t worry," Georgie tells him, "we’ll get you there." For a moment, in this landscape glowing with false possibility amid everyday horror, you want, more than anything, to believe him.