Nobody symbolizes the American Dream better than John Waters. I’m sure I’ve said that before, but every time he makes a new movie, publishes a new book, or heads out on a new tour, I think it bears repeating. Waters has managed to turn his perverse obsessions into semi-fame and semi-fortune. At the time it would have been unimaginable that the guy who made Desperate Living or Female Trouble would ever sniff mainstream success. Waters has managed this feat without ever compromising or “selling out”. In fact he seems to be getting more randy with age. From his last film, A Dirty Shame, to his previous book Role Models, to his latest book Carsick, the tawdry tales keep getting more graphic.
The conceit of Carsick is pretty great. Waters decides to hitchhike from Baltimore to San Francisco and document the proceedings in a book. Carsick is divided into 3 parts; a novella where the idealized version of his trip plays out, a novella where his nightmare trip unfolds, and the final version based on what really happened.
The two novellas are pure Waters. The novellas’ chapters recount each fictitious ride he receives along the way, and they play out like classic scenes from his movies. In his “good ride” novella, Waters partakes in a bank robbery, becomes a sideshow freak at a hipster carnival filled with malfunctioning rides, reconnects with Edith Massey, and has a sexual encounter while in the passenger seat of a car in a demolition derby. At 66 years of age, Waters still revels in shedding light on the weirdest subcultures and fetishes. At one point he gets a ride from an “alternative librarian” distributing obscure genres of literature such as “womb raiders”. “Are you familiar with that genre?” the librarian asks. Waters replies, “You mean women who tell their husbands they’re pregnant when they’re not and then follow real pregnant ones, kill them, cut out their babies and take them home claiming they’ve just given birth.” Carsick is a real joyride, let me tell you.
The brilliance of Carsick is that if you listed the characters he meets in the “good ride” version of his trip alongside the miscreants he meets in the “bad ride” version of the trip, you’d be hard pressed to figure out which people belonged to which novella. Everybody seems like a renegade from a Pink Flamingos universe. In the nightmare novella, his past literally comes back to haunt him. In one case, a killer he has made fun of in Shock Value is back from the dead, picking him up for a ride, and out to seek her revenge. It’s fun to watch Waters’ discomfort as he tangles with some of these fantastic creations.
Waters’ actual hitchhiking experience is a far cry from either of his novellas. The drama and tension revolve around mundane hitchhiking concerns. Will he get a ride? Will it stop raining? Will he have to sleep in the bushes? Will he ever get out of Kansas? Waters seems humbled by the experience and comes across as grateful for every ride he receives. Sometimes he’s recognized and sometimes he’s not, but he is actually coming into contact with big parts of America that he has never dared step foot in. He shops at a Walmart, dines at Ruby Tuesday’s, and meets people he would otherwise never come into contact with. It may not be as dramatic as the offerings in his novella, but dare I say, it’s sweet.