‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking’ by Denis Johnson

Car Crash While Hitchhiking by Denis Johnson, 1989

The magic trick:

Spoiling the dramatic conclusion to a very dramatic plot on the very first page

Maybe I’m going soft in my middle age, but I just don’t love stories like this.

Pure nastiness.

I know the world has such moments.

I know our souls contain such darkness.

But damn.

It’s not something I enjoy reading these days.

Anyway, that said, it’s obviously a remarkable story. It gets right to you and sticks.

Our narrator tells us up top about the car accident. Matter of fact, the title of the story does, come to think of it. So all the signs are there. We know this is going to end badly. But rather than spoiling the plot, it does the opposite. It makes the plot work. We read the story expecting the worst, waiting with dread for the hammer to drop. Much like our narrator.

And that’s quite a trick on Johnson’s part.

The selection:

A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping .. . A Cherokee filled with bourbon .. . A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student . . .

And a family from Marshalltown who head–onned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri. . .

. . . I rose up sopping wet from sleeping under the pouring rain, and something less than conscious, thanks to the first three of the people I’ve already named —the salesman and the Indian and the student —all of whom had given me drugs. At the head of the entrance ramp I waited without hope of a ride. What was the point, even, of rolling up my sleeping bag when I was too wet to be let into anybody’s car? I draped it around me like a cape. The downpour raked the asphalt and gurgled in the ruts. My thoughts zoomed pitifully. The traveling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my veins feel scraped-out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside of it I knew we’d have an accident in the storm.


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