‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking’ by Denis Johnson

Take this as a vote for the whole of Jesus’ Son, a book of linked stories about a sleazy, damaged drug addict called Fuckhead. Johnson rips the skin off Fuckhead’s life to reveal the beauty and anguish beneath the surface. In the justly famous opening story, the protagonist hitches a ride with a family on a dark, wet night, ominously telling us: “I’d known all along exactly what was going to happen.” After several readings I’m still at a loss to pin down how Johnson succeeds in being so transcendently gritty, so brutally compassionate. It helps that he’s one of the great prose stylists, as he proves from the opening sentences to the shocking conclusion, when the narrator seems to swivel from the carnage he’s just described to look us dead in the eye: “It was raining. Gigantic ferns leaned over us. The forest drifted down a hill. I could hear a creek rushing down among rocks. And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”

From Jesus’ Son, 1992, Farrar, Straus & Giroux

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