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“Car Crash While Hitchhiking” by Denis Johnson


A reliable narrator is a speaker in the story or test who can be trusted. It means that it can also be a person who has values close to the values of the author of the novel and can offer it to readers and other individuals. Thus, the discussed story called “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” by Denis Johnson can also be linked to the idea of the reliability of the narrator. The writing describes a person who travels across the land and hitchhikes to get to various destination points. The narrator suffers from drugs and their effect on him, and, at the same time, he shows the signs of clairvoyance as he foresees that there will be a crash and an accident. In such a way, the story offers important issues such as drugs and trustworthiness. The use of addictive substances, hallucinations, and vague illusions in the text prove the idea that a storyteller with such features cannot be viewed as a reliable narrator.

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Analyzing the story, it should be said that the ideas of drugs and trustworthiness are the opposite ones. There are multiple cases when addicted people fail to behave appropriately and fall short of expectations. For this reason, for literature, it is a common step to use substance abuse as one of the indicators of a person who cannot be trusted. The effect can be achieved by demonstrating the illusiveness of the world from the perspective of a person who is affected by drugs and his/her inability to analyze reality. For instance, in the story, the narrator says, “I knew every raindrop by its name”, which can be a sign of heavy drug use and unreality of things surrounding him (Johnson 4).

Moreover, the impossibility to trust the narrator who suffers from drug use is proven at the end of the story. The main character finds himself at Seattle General Hospital, experiencing the Detox procedure and suffering from hallucinations and strange noises. He saw “a yellow bird” near his face and felt “like a fish” (Johnson 12). In such a way, readers can understand that the whole story can be another illusion that emerged under the impact of drugs and cannot be trusted. The unreliability of this narrator becomes evident from the inability of a hero to analyze reality. He cannot judge clearly and realize what happens to him, which means that readers should also be ready to avoid trusting his assumptions.

Another idea proving the unreliability of the narrator is his telling lies to people surrounding him. In the story, the hero hitchhikes to reach different destination points and meet other people. However, he does not care about them and is not ready, to tell the truth, which also means that the story represented by him can be a fake one or created under the impact of drugs. Even in his illusions or visions, which can be taken as clairvoyance, he does not warn people and preserves his secrets, “I didn’t talk to everyone. My secret was that in this short while I had gone from being the president of this tragedy to being a faceless onlooker” (Johnson 10). In such a way, the presented story and the hero’s actions prove the idea that the reliability of a narrator who does not tell the truth can be doubted. Moreover, the combination of drug use and lies should be viewed as strong evidence of the fact that the majority of events described by a character with these features should be taken as unreal ones or argued.

However, there is an opposing view on the idea of a reliable and unreliable narrator. By this definition, an unreliable one is one whose credibility can be doubted or compromised. At the same time, the authors might introduce reliable narrators with some of the features typical for unreliable ones with the primary goal to achieve a particular effect and to disappoint readers’ expectations, which can work only if people are sure that the story will evolve in different ways. Applying the given perspective to the novel, the narrator who suffers from drugs and has strange feelings related to future events can be viewed as a reliable narrator as he serves as the tool to demonstrate the author’s ideas and make people think about the central message of the story that is presented at the moment. The given point of view is also linked to the fact that the accident that happened to people in cars and the hero has a strong impact on him and triggers significant challenges in his personality. For this reason, the reliability of his words and representations of all events described in the text cannot be doubted.

However, analyzing the given argument, some of its weaknesses can be outlined. First of all, the introduction of the main character with multiple features that are usually viewed as negative ones is the tool used by the author to create a specific atmosphere of a story. Still, it cannot be considered the method to play with their expectations. On the contrary, the whole mood of the story shows its illusiveness and unreality. Short and abrupt phrases at the beginning “A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping…A Cherokee filled with bourbon…” help readers to understand the unusual character of the narrated story and the strange flow of thoughts in the head of the hero (Johnson 3). Moreover, the end of the story also proves the unreliability of the narrator, “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you” (Johnson 12). The character mocks at readers who could have believed him or who could have trusted him. In such a way, the use of drugs and hallucinations supported by the examples from the text proves the unreliability of the narrator.


Altogether, the reliability or unreliability of the narrator can be viewed as the issue important for the understanding of a particular text of the author’s message. The hero who possesses traits that are traditionally perceived as negative ones, such as the use of drugs or lies, cannot be trusted because of his nature. For the story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”, the given idea becomes critically important. The readers cannot see the borders between the real and imaginary world because of addictive substances, signs of foreseeing, and hallucinations that are peculiar to the narrator. That is why the narrator can also be viewed as unreliable. There is an opposing point of view stating that the given features are not central for determining the nature of a storyteller; however, it can be refuted by the text and by its main idea. The author represents the story from the perspective of a person who uses drugs, which means that its reliability can be doubted.

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Work Cited

Johnson, Denis. “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” Jesus’ Son, edited by Jonathan Galassi, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, pp. 3-12.

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