‘Emergency’ by Denis Johnson

Emergency by Denis Johnson, 1989

The magic trick:

Compressing all extremes – horror and beauty – back to a numb zero

Probably the most famous story in the Jesus’ Son collection, there’s no denying it’s a classic. It pulls all extremes – horror and beauty – and muffles back to zero in a middle-of-the-road numbness. The relentless compression is breathtaking to read. (The last line is a wonder, too.)

And that’s quite a trick on Johnson’s part.

The selection:

“Is your other eye,” she said, “a glass eye?”

“It’s plastic, or something artificial like that,” he said.

“And you can see out of this eye?” she asked, meaning the wounded one.

“I can see. But I can’t make a fist out of my left hand because this knife is doing something to my brain.”

“My God,” Nurse said.

“I guess I’d better get the doctor,” I said.

“There you go,” Nurse agreed.

They got him lying down, and Georgie says to the patient, “Name?”

“Terrence Weber.”

“Your face is dark. I can’t see what you’re saying.”

“Georgie,” I said.

“What are you saying, man? I can’t see.”

Nurse came over, and Georgie said to her, “His face is dark.”

She leaned over the patient. “How long ago did this happen, Terry?” she shouted down into his face.

“Just a while ago. My wife did it. I was asleep,” the patient said.

“Do you want the police?”

He thought about it and finally said, “Not unless I die.”


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