Denis Johnson


  • This summary of Emergency includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

Emergency Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature  detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Emergency by Denis Johnson.

“Emergency,” a 1991 short story by Denis Johnson first published in an issue of The New Yorker, recounts a series of events that occur involving doctors and orderlies working in the emergency room of an Iowa City Hospital.

At the beginning of the story, Johnson’s unnamed narrator is about to go on a break at his job in an Iowa City hospital emergency room. While on his break, he goes looking for his friend, Georgie. An orderly working in the emergency room, Georgie often steals drugs and abuses them. When the narrator finds his friend, Georgie is mopping the floor of an operating room. The narrator can tell that Georgie is high on pilfered drugs because he keeps mopping the floor, insisting it is covered in blood, even though the floor is clean. The narrator asks Georgie to share some of the drugs, which are not explicitly identified. Soon, both men are beyond the point of functioning and completely high.

Suddenly, a patient Terence Weber is hustled into the emergency area of the hospital. His injuries are gruesome: he has a knife stuck in one eye and a glass eye in the other socket. The attending doctor is concerned that he will cause the man brain damage if he attempts to remove the knife. The narrator is instructed to call a number of specialists who may be able to help the anxious doctor. Meanwhile, Georgie is instructed to prep the patient for surgery, but instead, Georgie pulls the knife out himself. Against all odds, the patient recovers with no damage. Even stranger is the fact that Weber has no damage to the eye in which the knife had protruded just a few moments earlier.

When their shift ends in the morning, Georgie and the narrator are still high. While driving, they run over a jackrabbit. Georgie wants to retrieve the jackrabbit so he can make rabbit stew. Approaching the rabbit, Georgie takes the hunting knife that he had pulled out of Weber’s eye and cuts the rabbit open right there in the street, discovering the rabbit is pregnant. Now Georgie wants to save the rabbit, even though it has already been run over and cut open, so he picks it up and carries it back to the car.

The two drive off, but unfortunately, they are hopelessly lost. They drive all day until nightfall but are forced to stop after the car’s headlights stop working. The two begin to wander, and it starts to snow, even though it is mid-September and it almost never snows during that time of year in Iowa. They stumble upon an empty drive-in theater. A movie is playing on the screen, even though there are no cars to be seen.

The drive-in theater operators shut off the movie because there are no customers except for the two high, bumbling orderlies. Making their way back to the car, Georgie announces that he intends to save the baby rabbit fetuses, just like he saved Terence Weber. Unfortunately, the narrator reveals that he accidentally sat on the baby rabbit fetuses. Depressed about the fate of the fetuses, they fall asleep. Once it’s daytime, they somehow drive back to the hospital without being late for their shift. While walking into the hospital, they encounter Terence Weber. Weber tries to shake Georgie’s hand, but Georgie is too affected by whatever drug he took to recognize the man whose life he saved.

At the end of the story, the narration flashes back to another time when Georgie and the narrator are driving around. They pick up a soldier who is hitchhiking after deserting his army unit. He says he has to go to Canada, and Georgie promises him that he has friends who can help him out. The hitchhiker, whose name is Hardee, asks Georgie what his profession is, and Georgie responds that he “saves lives.” Back in the present, the narrator reflects on this and notes that it is true. However, it is sad that despite Georgie’s good works, which are miraculous in nature, his drug abuse hinders his potential greatly. Considering what Georgie has done while under the influence of massive amounts of drugs, the narrator can hardly imagine what miracles he might accomplish with a sober mind.