It’s crazy when your whole life starts feeling like something that’s on the very verge of happening. Like you’re living on the edge of something big.
That’s an approximation of how I feel when I do things like count weekends in the calendar and realize that I have about six total left in Portland. I bought a plane ticket to Chicago yesterday to visit my BFF from college. I also spent time talking with my little brother about a trip to Yellowstone in the fall, and looking up maps and directions.
Maybe this on-the-edge feeling is the reason why I’ve been so into Jesus’ Son lately, an absolute classic that I didn’t think much of the first time I read it but have now completely fallen in love with.
I want to talk about one story in particular from this book, “Emergency.” There are many reasons why I love this story. Here are just a few:
– The surreal, bordering on slapstick humor, in scenes like the one where the nurse tells the man with the knife in his eye to lie down, and he says, “Okay, I’m certainly ready for something like that.” Or his classic response when the doctor asks if he wants the police to be called: “Not unless I die.” (How amazing is it that in the movie this character is played by none other than Denis Johnson himself?)
– The effectiveness with which Johnson establishes the unreliability of the narrator, setting the tone with the very first sentence: “I’d been working in the emergency room for about three weeks, I guess.” (274)
– The visual motif of blood, squishiness, stuff spilling out or getting squashed, like when the narrator rolls over the baby bunnies they’d just rescued and kills them. In the eyes of this story, we’re no better than these baby bunnies, prematurely pulled from our dead mother’s womb: we’re all just a bunch of walking wet organs, emergencies just waiting to happen, constantly on the verge of death. Or as Georgie puts it, “There’s so much goop inside of us, man, and it all wants to come out.” (274)
– The theme of seeing vs. not seeing. The man with a knife sticking in his eye (put there by his wife who caught him peeking at the lady next door while sunbathing) is the most obvious example. Other references keep popping up constantly throughout the story, like when Georige says “I’m starting to get my eyes back” (281) shortly following F.H.’s so-called religious vision. This theme of seeing makes me feel like a big theme in this story is REALITY, or specifically how we interpret or deal with it. Do we steal pills and get high? Do we go to the chapel and worship? How do we deal? How can we cope?
– The theme of reality ties in with all the references to religion sprinkled throughout the piece, most significantly when F.H. thinks he has a vision of an angelic choir, but it turns out to be just a drive-in movie. His reaction is classic: “I see. I thought it was something else.” (281) Other characters have similarly blase reactions, like the nurse who says “yeah, yeah” to the Lord is my Shepherd prayer getting blasted over the intercom. Interestingly enough, Georgie is the only character who expresses a clear desire to get in touch with his spiritual side: while high on pills, F.H. wants to go to the country fair, but Georgie’s desires are different: “I want to go to church… I’d like to worship. I would… I need a quiet chapel about now.” (278) Is Georgie the only person in touch with a spiritual reality in this story? Does he see things that the other characters don’t? Is his last line of the story (“I save lives”) the truth that all the rest of us don’t see?
– This paragraph:
“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… 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.”
You can watch two clips from the “Emergency” section of the very fine film adaptation below: