The weekly Meet-Up of Finding Your Writers Voice continued last night with a fascinating review and discussion on Denis Johnson’s classic short story, Car Crash While Hitchhiking. It’s quite a short, short story, only one thousand words in length but it packs in much to question and ponder and leaves the reader scratching their head wondering what the hell is going on. Let’s have a look at some of the key pieces of narrative and dialogue that the group talked through.
The first noticeable narrative technique is employed in the opening two paragraphs. The first few lines are a chronological summary of the story, but without context, more a list of events loosely remembered. The reader is then suddenly dropped into the mind of a man who, in the depths of a drug-induced episode, feels his senses heightened to a level where he ‘knew every raindrop by name’ and just knew he was going to be a car accident, but he didn’t care. He was only interested in being taken ‘all the way’, where that was we don’t know, perhaps to his death and release?
There is some great use of imagery, taking advantage of the surrounding landscape. When they left the superhighway ‘under midwestern clouds like great grey brains’ they hit rush hour traffic and moved from the freedom of the open road to the crawl of the urban traffic ‘ with a sensation of running aground’ and ‘all the magic of travelling together burned away’.
In the aftermath of the crash, as the man tried desperately to wake his unconscious wife, the narrator says, ‘I was ready to deny everything myself now’. What did he mean by this line? Perhaps he referring to the man desperately trying to deny that his wife was seriously injured and his own reluctance to admit how messed up he was.
Denouncing responsibility is also a theme in the story. When referring to the truck driver who, pulled up just after the accident, and having climbed into his cab with the baby, he says
By his manner he seemed to endorse the idea of not doing anyhting about this. I was relieved and tearful. I’d thought something was required of me, but I hadn’t wanted to find out what it was.Car Crash While Hitchhiking
The question of meaning is asked again in these lines. Was he afraid of responsibility or fearful of how capable he was of taking on any responsibility? He clearly can’t even manage himself.
One of the most shocking parts of the story takes place while he is in the hospital. He knows that the driver of the other car is also in the hospital and that he is dead. He sees the dead man’s wife come in and be led into a room.
Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us….What a pair of lungs. She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.Car Crash While Hitchhiking
How could the wife hold any power of those who knew her husband was dead? Was it because she was innocent of reality, blissfully? Did he wish he was also ignorant of his reality? Then the scream, a sound so guttural it sounded like an eagle’s shriek. Did it take this show of complete and utter pain in another person to wake him from his fog of self-loathing? He felt alive, it felt wonderful! Imagine needing to hear this level of pain in a person to feel alive within yourself.
The story ends on an equally ambigous note.
And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.Car Crash While Hitchhiking
If you’ve read the complete book of short stories, Jesus’ Son, you’ll know that the main protagonist, ‘Fuckhead’ believes he is the son of Jesus. The last line of the story exposes his contempt towards ridiculous people, towards humans. How dare they expect anything from me, me the son of Jesus. A reformed drug addict, perhaps, still believes he is special, above the masses.
We’ve spoken before about great stroy telling and the secrets great story tellers following in their writing. This short story breaks the rules when it comes to following what you’re supposed to do when structuring a story. Cause and effect though are followed but not in a strictly chronological order. There is no character arc, very little of any characterisation, lots of show and very little tell.
The story may leave you feeling disgusted or fascinated, you may love it or hate it. You can’t deny the complexity of the story and the many questions it raises as you read it. We enjoyed discussing it, I hope you enjoy reading it and pondering on it’s meaning.
One last point. One of the group asked what’s the value of the story. I would say any value taken from the story is up to you, your own personal history will react to the story in the only way it can, uniquely. For me, I loved it!
Some additional links you may find interesting when trying to assign meaning and understanding to this short story.
- Denis Johnson’s Perfect Short Story
- Car Crash while Hitchhiking Summary and Analysis
- Car Crash While Hitchhiking