The 5 of Clubs has it in for me. I’ve wanted to try something by Denis Johnson for quite some time, so at first I was excited when his card came up as this week’s Deal Me In story. As I started reading “Emergency”, the combination of beautiful and unpleasant language with which Johnson writes, coupled with his often-quirky phrasing, led me to believe this story would be right up my alley. But then I realized I was reading a drug narrative, and my spirits sank a bit. I’m very open-minded when it comes to subject matter for fiction, but I have a bad track record with enjoying this particular sort of writing.
I’m honestly not sure what I want to say about this story. It’s disjointed. It’s disorienting. It jumps from scene to scene. It’s not terribly pleasant. Animals are harmed. Yet it’s often funny, in that special way that certain authors can make even a train wreck seem somehow horribly humorous. Johnson is great at conveying a lot about his characters through a very few words of dialogue or the roll of an eye. And sometimes his language is simply gorgeous, a crystalline shard of perfection cutting through the muck of the mess the characters have made for themselves.
The protagonist is a clerk in a hospital emergency room. His friend and partner in poor decision-making is Georgie, the orderly. It is 1973. Our “heroes” like to steal random fistfuls of pills from the hospital stores and pop them while on shift. The story chronicles various episodes at work and some of their off-work escapades, focusing on the quixotic nature of altered perceptions. There is a road trip quality to much of the story, as well as echoes of various buddy yarns. I kept thinking this might be what it would be like if John Steinbeck wrote a contemporary pastiche of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas…or if Don DeLillo or Chuck Palahniuk wrote a bromance. *shudder* (I know this description may actually endear the story to some readers, and happy reading to you! It’s just not my thing.)
Don’t get me wrong: Denis Johnson can really write. This is a humdinger of a piece of writing. But as a story – a self-contained narrative with traceable plot, beginning, middle, and end – it didn’t quite do it for me. It has a fix-up quality to it, like Johnson wrote various vignettes, dropped the pages, and shuffled them back together at random. I suppose that does convey nicely the mutable nature of certain types of drug experiences, but as a story I found it less than wholly-effective. (I don’t believe he actually did this, a la a Burroughs-esque cut-up job, but I suppose that’s not outside the realm of possibility.) I think this might be due in part to the fact that the story originally comes from the collection “Jesus’ Son”, which is a story cycle, comprised of interconnected stories with the same (or functionally exchangeable) protagonist, which follows the progress of his life through many situations, all tinged by chronic intoxication and attempts at sobriety. I know this book is beloved by many, so I am inclined to think that “Emergency” would work much better as part of that whole body of work. That being said, I can’t see myself rushing to read the whole collection any time soon. This topic just isn’t a favorite of mine, and although I absolutely admire Johnson’s writing abilities, I don’t feel compelled to revisit his strangely beautiful sideways world.