‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking’ by Denis Johnson

I first came across Denis Johnson in my late teens, still living in Scotland and hanging out with artists though I was going to work in a psychiatric hospital every day. I loved American literature and I still love Jesus’ Son. I must have read it dozens of times.It’s a collection of 11 perfect, inter-related short stories. And it is brutally honest and painfully beautiful, set in a down-and-out world of drugs and drink.  Johnson sculpts his shambolic characters with heart-breaking honesty. But there’s always an underlying compassion, even if covered up by layers of trauma and dissociation. This story is told from the perspective of a seemingly homeless, clairvoyant, unnamed narrator who appears to have hitchhiked with several people involved in a devastating accident. Our narrator appears to have predicted the event.

“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.”

This devastating piece is surely a masterclass in short story writing.

First published in Jesus’ Son, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992, and available to read online here

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