‘Emergency’ by Denis Johnson

‘Emergency’ was my introduction to Denis Johnson. It came to me via The New Yorker’s fiction podcast, narrated by Tobias Wolff, who brilliantly delivers the heart and humor of this tale. It contains one of my favorite Johnson moments: his hero Fuckhead and another orderly, Georgie, high on pills stolen from the Catholic hospital where they work, stumble through a blizzard into an open field that they mistake for a military cemetery marked with rows of anonymous, identical grave markers. From above, the enormous faces of angels come bearing down on them through the clouds, “streaked with light and full of pity.” But then they realize that the angels are only actors in a movie projected on to an outdoor cinema in front of a row of plastic chairs, abandoned by the audience in the sudden spring storm. No one captures the absurdity, terror and fragile beauty of being alive quite like Johnson. Like the characters in ‘Emergency’, the cast of his linked collection Jesus’ Son are outcasts, drifters, addicts, but Johnson allows them a full range of experience—moments of tenderness, violence, grief, and revelation.

First published in The New Yorker, September 8, 1991 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Jesus’ Son, Picador, 1992, and widely anthologised, including in That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of the Finest Short Stories, ed. David Miller, Head of Zeus, 2014

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