Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Denis Johnson's "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" is, at its most basic, a drug-addicted vagabond's experience of a crash crash while hitchhiking with a family driving in an Oldsmobile at night in a storm. The story includes a pair of temporal jumps: a flashback in which the narrator remembers hitchhiking with other individuals, as well as a flash forward to an de-contextualized experience in a detox program in a hospital. The narrator describes his hitchhiking experience (and begins his story) as follows:
A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping . . . A Cherokee filled with bourbon . . . A VW no more than the bubble of 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. (1)
The quote demonstrating arguably the single most fascinating aspect of the story is as follows:
I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it glowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside it I knew we'd have an accident in the storm. (1)
The narrator knew all along that the accident would happen. That the narrator is clairvoyant is supported by his public disavowal of the same. After the crash, he asks "what happened" to which the driver answers, "we had a wreck." The narrator is not one to advertise or lay explicit claim to his prescience, but instead tries to conceal it.
The narrator then furnishes a creative description of the landscape leading up to the accident as follows:
Under the Midwestern clouds like great grey brains we left the superhighway with a drifting sensation and entered Kansas City's rush hour with the sensation of running around. (2)
The narrator is extremely focused on voices. When the narrator hear's the deceased's wife scream, he comments:
What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagine an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it. I've gone looking for that feeling everywhere. (4)
Later, the narrator will flash forward to a hospital whose beautiful nurses asks him if he hears unusual voices. He admits to the reader, but denies to the nurse, that a box of cotton cries out to him, "Help us, oh God, it hurts" (5).
The final lines of the story are among the most interesting. The narrator breaks the wall between the reader and himself by stating:
It was raining. Gigantic ferns leaned over us. The forest drifted down a hill. I could hear a creek rushing down among the rocks. And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you. (5)
Much has been made about these last lines, which are decidedly open to interpretation. The narrator might be addressing the reader, anticipating the reader's questioning of his supernatural foresight (only hinted at in the the novel). The other interpretation is that the narrator is speaking to the staff in the hospital and that these lines are meant to be taken in the narrator's specific context. Regardless, they mark the narrator as a unique individual who comfortably occupies the margins of society.