Car Crash While Hitchhiking

"Car Crash While Hitchhiking" is a work of short fiction by the American writer Denis Johnson based on a real incident in Johnson's life.[1] The story was first published in The Paris Review in 1989 and collected in the 1990 edition of The Best American Short Stories. "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" is the opening story in Johnson's short story collection Jesus' Son (1992). [2]

"Car Crash While Hitchhiking"
by Denis Johnson
Published inThe Paris Review
Publication date1989


In this story, a drug-addicted narrator recounts hitchhiking in four different vehicles, first with a Cherokee, then a salesperson, then a college student, and finally a family composed of a husband, wife, young daughter and a baby. The salesperson is drunk and shares alcohol and pills with the narrator before leaving him off to find a student who drives him until he catches a ride with the family. Eventually, this vehicle is struck by another car resulting in the death of the driver of the other car. The story ends with the narrator looking back several years later, seemingly in detox, as he recounts his drug abuse, which the entire narration of the story reflects in a style of disconnect from reality.[3][4][5]

Critical assessmentEdit

"Car Crash While Hitchhiking" opens Johnson's 1992 short fiction collection Jesus' Son. The story is perhaps "the volume's most arresting work" and, according to critic J. Robert Lennon, a story that exhibits "sudden swerves in diction, from the straightforward and unadorned to the wildly metaphorical and self-conscious." He adds:

At the heart of this little piece is the voice of a lone man, swinging on the down-curve of drugs, who hitchhikes into an auto accident. The narrative spins and swerves, but despite all these different tacks we still know this man -- his passivity, his sensory imprisonment, his essential decency and his aspiration toward holiness."[6]

Author David L Ulin considers "Car Crash" the "most vivid short story that I know."[7]

Representative of the "multiple interlocking stories" that comprise the collection of short fiction in Jesus' Son, the title story deals almost exclusively with the "phantasmagorical" experiences of the drug-addicted.[8] Critic Troy Jollimore calls "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" a classic of the American short story form."[9]

Johnson studied writing at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the 1970s under the mentorship of author Raymond Carver. Critic Sandy English observes that "Carver is clearly an influence on Johnson's work."[10] Johnson's mastery of the short story form is on display in "Car-Crash While Hitchhiking", a tale that takes the reader into the world of the protagonist's "drug-fueled insanity."[11] Literary critic Jeffery Eugenides writes:

…In a little over a thousand words —Johnson found a way to leave out the maximum in terms of plot, setting characterization, and authorial explanation while finding a voice that suggested all these things, a voice whose brokenness is the reason behind the narrative deprivation, and therefore a kind of explanation itself.[12]


  1. ^ Geltner 2022
  2. ^ Simpson 1991: "His "Car Crash While Hitchhiking," first published in The Paris Review and then collected in the 1990 edition of "Best American Short Stories,"
  3. ^ Simpson 1991
  4. ^ Jollimore 2018
  5. ^ English 2019
  6. ^ Lennon 2018
  7. ^ Ulin 2018: "'Car Crash While Hitchhiking,' which opens Jesus' Son may be the most vivid short story that I know."
  8. ^ English 2019: "In his first volume of short stories, Jesus' Son (1992) the narrator, a drug addict, known only as "Fuckhead," describes what critic Jim Lewis called "a landscape of derangement." The work became popular among younger people at the time, for better or worse."
  9. ^ Jollimore 2018
  10. ^ English 2019: "He attended the Iowa Writers workshop while short story writer Raymond Carver (1938–88) taught there. Carver is clearly an influence on Johnson's work."
  11. ^ Eugenides 2016: "Customary narrative procedure has disappeared and you realize that you've entered, or better, been sucked into, Fuckhead's world."
  12. ^ Eugenides 2016: Composite quote from the essay, meaning unchanged.