Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Much of Denis Johnson’s fiction deals with the strange and surreal lives of people who live on the fringes of society, and “Emergency” is a clear example of this motif. Johnson included it in a collection of stories about the same unnamed protagonist of “Emergency.” The title for the collection, Jesus’ Son (1992), comes from a line in “Heroin,” the Velvet Underground’s famous rock song about addiction. The collection was the basis of a 1999 film, Jesus’ Son, directed by Alison Maclean.

Johnson went through a period of drug and alcohol addiction, and it left him with a stark understanding of its grim realities. Therefore, there is nothing romantic about drug use in “Emergency”; however, Johnson is not judgmental about it either. Instead, he clearly shows its dangers and attractions and depicts the empty cultural wasteland that helps make drugs attractive.

Much of the meaning of “Emergency” centers on the orderly, Georgie. He is in many ways an admirable character. He saves Terrence Weber’s life and sight by withdrawing the knife from his eye when the rest of the emergency room staff were panicking. He claims he will help Hardee reach Canada, thereby saving the narrator’s friend from prison. We also see his deep sense of compassion when he weeps over the imaginary blood on the floor of the operating room and attempts to save the rabbit fetuses after his truck runs over their mother.


(The entire section is 555 words.)