Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In keeping with his unromantic view about drug use and his despairing vision of late twentieth century America, Johnson writes “Emergency” in a terse, unadorned style. Descriptions are coldly precise, even when they concern the mental confusions of someone lost in a drug haze. There are few interpretations of events, and such horrors as a man with a knife in his eye and a bundle of bloody rabbit fetuses pass by the narrator as if he were watching them on the motion picture screen he encounters at the drive-in.

Johnson reinforces this unromantic view of life and of drug addiction by writing “Emergency” in first-person narrative voice, which allows him to take the reader inside the mind of someone on hallucinogenic drugs. The narrator dwells in a world of shifting uncertainties, a manic realm in which blood can evoke giggles and snow tears. The main character of “Emergency” certainly exemplifies the concept of the “unreliable narrator” because he admits he is never sure of what he is experiencing, much like Georgie’s illusory belief that blood covers a clean operating room floor, blood he cannot manage to mop up.

Dark humor also pervades “Emergency.” When the emergency room nurse asks Weber if he wants them to call the police to report that his wife stabbed him with a knife, he says to do so only if he dies. The narrator describes the Timothy Leary character as having eyes one would purchase at a joke shop, and a bull elk standing in the pristine dawn as stupid. Johnson’s humor deprives the world of meaning and transcendence, confirming the absurdity of the United States after the Vietnam War.

Still, a feeling of potential redemption does emerge from “Emergency.” When Georgie says his job is to save people, Johnson reveals the hope, albeit a slender one, that his characters, and the United States as well, can rediscover a world of reality and significance.