I am writing this review on a legal pad while riding shotgun in a car, because I think that’s how John Waters would want it. He just released Carsick, a book recounting his adventures hitchhiking from Baltimore to San Francisco. You may have read about the trip a couple years back, when Waters was making his way across the country and gathering material. That’s how I heard about it, and it made me wonder about hitchhiking.
Would I ever pick someone up? Not likely. I am a small, lean woman.
Before going on his real adventure, Waters wrote two fictional accounts, one describing the best that could happen and the other imagining the worst.
SIDENOTE: I just saw a complete set of someone’s bedsheets (pink and with pillows included) blown over roadside. When I point it out to my driver, he tells me that’s nothing compared to what he saw the other day: a dead Chihuahua by the side of the road, its legs pointing up cartoon-style.
Now. Where were we? Yes, I read Carsick the way I watch most John Waters' films -- gleeful and in awe of his attraction to chaos, then repulsed and dying to avert my eyes. I am not a film critic so I can look away from a movie when I want to, but I did not give in to those instincts for this book; I read everything for you. (You’re welcome, readers of the Internet!) After all, do you really want to know what’s the worst that could happen to a hitchhiker in John Waters’ imagination? Some of you do, I bet.
In the acknowledgments, Waters describes his two assistants typing up the book from drafts on a legal pad (mine says Universal in red at the top), and how they could not tell which stories belonged in which category. Getting picked up by a runaway felon who is a sexual exhibitionist and involves you in a bank robbery fits most people’s "worst" category, but not John Waters.
“I got a bank job to do, porkers!” he shouts [to police chasing] as we zoom down the country lane. So that’s what he does for a living, I think, impressed before suddenly realizing I should be frightened. “You’re not going to rob a bank now, are you?” I sputter. “I’m not, we are,” he answers with confidence.
In the memoir part of the book, titled The Real Thing, it’s raining when Waters steps out with his sign — one of many, but I like the one that reads to I-70 on one side and I’M NOT PSYCHO on the other. Unlike the fictional accounts, the first few rides are hastily sketched out. The interiors of the cars are not clearly seen and the dialogue time and again leads to the same thing: Waters telling his drivers about his films or the fact that he’s a filmmaker, then noting their awareness or lack thereof. This is problematic in that it reveals a type of self-centeredness that has no dramatic place in a book about hitchhiking. The passages lack real engagement with the people Waters encounters and their personal spaces.
The best writing naturally comes out of rides with people Waters can relate to — for example, Kitty and Jupiter, ride number fifteen:
[Kitty’s] a disabled vet who, along with many others in the Marines, was given a “bad anti-anthrax vaccine” that almost killed her. Kitty claims that the serum “was not kept in a climate-controlled environment. It happened to others, too,” she explains...
Jupiter’s a roofer. Naturally! Why are roofers always cute? I tell him he’s a dead ringer for a young Manson, and he asks if I’d like some “recreational drugs.” They both smoke pot and offer me a place to stay for the night at either of their pads... I try to convince Jupiter that he should try hitchhiking. “Sure” — he laughs — “who’s gonna pick up ‘Charlie Manson Jr.,’ as you call me? You know what they say about Kansas, don’t you?” “What?” I bite. “Come on vacation, leave on probation!” I could fall in lust.
The wavering commitment to adventure loosens the dramatic tension in the book, and not even by Waters’ most valiant efforts to try and convince us that something is at stake can it be rescued. Many times, as Waters is waiting at a rest stop, he looks forlornly at a bush, dreading the possibility that he might have to sleep there. This is the same man who is constantly calling his assistants and trying to get them to send a taxi to pick him up (somehow this never quite works) and who later, while staying in a hotel, complains about being out of La Mer cream. Not for one second do we believe Waters will have to sleep under a bush on the side of the freeway.
By the way, Waters was 66 at the time of this adventure.
Overall, Carsick is a fun book, with one of the best-written prologues I have ever read. I devoured "The Best That Could Happen" in a gulp, and tore through "The Worst That Could Happen" in spite of the pervasive nausea it inspired. "The Real Thing" was made up of equal parts thrill and boredom, which is probably an accurate description of such a cross-country adventure.
There is a bump on the road. I look up for the first time in a while to see an orange sign with flashing bulbs that reads CAUTION. There are orange cones marking the middle of the road, too. They have reflective bands that look mother of pearl in this light. There doesn’t seem to be much going on. I guess, you never know when the road is going to be boring or when it’s going to surprise you with a dead Chihuahua.
Read an excerpt of Carsick at usmacmillan.com and catch John Waters on Forum, this morning, Monday, June 9, 10am on KQED 88.5FM.