I only started reading Denis Johnson about a year ago, and I didn’t like his writing at first. I read Angels (1983), his first novel, and I wasn’t impressed by the story of the most dysfunctional couple of all time. I didn’t read Denis Johnson again for a while.
Yet, last semester, I was told that I needed to read Denis Johnson. So, I picked up Jesus’s Son (1992), his seminal collection of short stories. I liked the first couple of stories of the narrator dubbed Fuckhead and his chaotic experiences, but I didn’t think they were that special. Until I read “Emergency” and was engulfed.
Here, Fuckhead works as an orderly in an ER with George. In succession, they get high on unlabeled pills, pull a knife out of a man’s eye, and get lost on a meandering drive. Time collapses and swirls. The absurdity propagates but isn’t acknowledged as absurd; Johnson’s hallucinations are taken at face value. For instance, after Georgie pulls the knife out of the man’s eye, he survives. A nurse turns to Fuckhead and says “there’s nothing wrong with the guy. It’s one of those things.”
Despite this dead-pan absurdity the emotions within the story are real in the same way that the emotions within a dream are real. As the story progresses, they run over a rabbit. As George skins said rabbit, they find “slimy miniature bunnies” inside. They take these bunnies with them, pledging to each other that they’ll raise them on warm milk and sugar. As they continue driving, it begins to snow, and they arrive at an empty drive-in theatre. The narrator, at first on a whimsical drive, suddenly realizes his surroundings.
Not one car remained, not even a broken-down one from last week, or one left here because it was out of gas. In a couple of minutes, in the middle of a whirling square dance, the screen turned black, the cinematic summer ended, the snow went dark, there was nothing but my breath.
And then, the narrator remembers the bunnies: “‘They slid around behind me and got squashed,’ I said tearfully… ‘No wonder they call me Fuckhead.’”
After reading this story, I became a Denis Johnson convert, rereading his stories and feeling the emotion of his magical nightmares. I immediately went on to read his novella Train Dreams (2002), the story of Robert Grainer, a lonely laborer whose family all dies in a fire. That man’s pain–his wolf-like howls– still haunts me.
Last week, I learned that Denis Johnson died at the age of 67. I did not know him personally, and I haven’t read nearly enough of his work. Still, when I found out he died, I felt like Fuckhead in “Emergency,” the world, not falling apart, but mutating maddeningly as he suddenly realizes that he’s killed the bunnies. But, thankfully, that’s not were the story ends:
Or maybe that wasn’t the time it snowed. Maybe it was the time we slept in the truck and I rolled over on the bunnies and flattened them. It doesn’t matter. What’s important for me to remember now is that early the next morning the snow was melted off the windshield and the daylight woke me up. A mist covered everything and, with the sunshine, was beginning to grow sharp and strange. The bunnies weren’t a problem yet, or they’d already been a problem and were already forgotten, and there was nothing on my mind. I felt the beauty of the morning. I could understand how a drowning man might suddenly feel a deep thirst being quenched. Or how the slave might become a friend to his master. Georgie slept with his face right on the steering wheel.
I saw bits of snow resembling an abundance of blossoms on the stems of the drive-in speakers—no, revealing the blossoms that were always there. A bull elk stood still in the pasture beyond the fence, giving off an air of authority and stupidity. And a coyote jogged across the pasture and faded away among the saplings.
Johnson’s visions will continue to haunt me, shifting morphing engulfing my mind and heart.
Read “Emergency” in Narrative Magazine.
Sage Marshall '19 studies English at Wesleyan University. He is co-founder and editor of Reverberations. Follow him on Twitter @Sagafanta.