Books

Changing Lanes with John Waters

To most, hitchhiking is a terrifying risk taken by the desperate or insane. This makes it a perfect subject for John Waters’ latest book, Carsick.


Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Length: 336 pages
Author: John Waters
Price: $26.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-06
Amazon

Highways are the most private public spaces in America. We always see the car, but only occasionally the people. Inside each sedan, big rig truck, or minivan is a little drama unfolding at 70 miles (or more) per hour. A family rushing to see a dying loved one, a couple in the throes of a blistering argument.

Outside is no different. Sparkling shards of broken glass, the slumped carcasses of animals, and abandoned cars paint a bleak picture which, for most, quickly fades in the rear view mirror.

Not so for hitchhikers. They can stand for hours in the sun or rain, hot or cold, before getting a ride, and then it might only be to the next exit, or it might be filled with the ramblings of someone even crazier than the hitcher. Forget about the romanticized adventure of the open road. To most, hitchhiking is a terrifying risk taken by the desperate or insane.

This makes it a perfect subject for John Waters’ latest book.

It might be easy to dismiss Waters’ particular brand of trash as nothing but shock for the sake of shock, but at his best the writer/ director/ artist/ author shows the intelligence behind the perverse and, of all things, the grotesque beauty of the human heart. The worst thing Waters can do is be shocking for the sake of it. In Carsick, Waters shows us both sides of his filthy world, with predictably mixed results.

The book begins almost as a thought experiment. The premise is simple: Waters plans to hitchhike from his home in Baltimore to his apartment in San Francisco. To begin, he’ll write two novellas based on his best and worst case scenarios, then follow those up with the events as they actually unfolded.

The best-case section is essentially the outline for a Waters road movie, all of it fueled by sex and drugs and a road-appropriate playlist of hitchhiking tunes. In one section, Waters joins a freak show as the Man with No Tattoos, a cutting bit of satire of the omnipresence of tattoos in today’s culture, and one can almost hear the shrieks of the pierced and inked freaks as they gaze at his bare skin.

Throughout his fictional journey, Waters is offered rides by pot farmers with Hollywood aspirations and people specializing in very specific forms of absurd perversity. He rides in a demolition derby and enjoys a strip show at an underground truck stop. Most of these adventures are not the average person’s idea of a good time, but it fits Waters aesthetic perfectly.

So, if most of us would see his good as bad, how will we see his worst? It’s populated with the same sorts of misfits as his idealized trip, but many of these freaks edge closer to the real world of alcoholics, homophobes, and criminals. At least for a while. If there’s one thing Waters doesn’t do well, it’s normal.

These chapters don’t feel that much different from his preferred experiences, they just veer into putting him in uncomfortable filth -- the literal kind -- facing crazies on the opposite end of the political spectrum, or nuts whose perversions even he can’t understand. The best of his worst rides is a man who only speaks in lines from Waters’ movies, a crazed fan who knows the work better than the writer does. That is a special kind of hell for someone with a catchphrase or a history of characters saying outrageous stuff. It’s the one inspired moment in the book’s middle section.

Unfortunately, much of it devolves into gross out humor for the sake of the gross out. These sections don’t poke at square society’s discomfort or tell some usually unspoken truth, they simply soak the page with all manor of bodily fluids.

The chapters on what actually happened are a relief. The first entry in Waters’ real life excursion is already better than both the fiction chapters. There’s a chance no one will pick him up, of course, and a chance no one interesting will pick him up, making the story interesting in conception rather than execution. But the nuts and bolts logistics of the task propel the story along, coupled with Waters’ observations of people and the world. There’s a lot of waiting around for something to happen, but it’s almost never boring.

Waters’ past works are always present in his adventures, whether it’s in the form of the fictionalized reincarnation of Edith Massey or a real trucker who didn’t care for Hairspray. This reminds us of who Waters is, a tic of personality if not of literary style. It doesn’t grate so much as it seems unnecessary, as if he’s writing to the handful of people (and one can only assume there’s not more than a few) who prefer the John Travolta musical version of Hairspray to the Divine/Ricki Lake original.

He meets regular people, many of whom recognize him, but others who don’t. Some don’t seem to believe him when he tells them he’s a film director, and one kind woman gives him $20 because she thinks he’s a drifter who’s gone off his medication. Waters meets people who would likely never find themselves portrayed in a book had it not been for their kindness. While the previous two sections of book are amusing and annoying, Waters’ real life journey becomes strangely sweet.

Filthy, tired, and worried about finding his next ride, Waters enters a truck stop restaurant one morning to see diners before work “stunned by the grim routine of their lives.” In earlier chapters that might have read like an elitist insult to the boring folks in the flyover states. Near the book’s end, it’s instead a keen observation on everyday life. It’s what any of us might find out on the road if we took the time to stop and see it.

5
Music
Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Music

Coronavirus Tunes: A Brief Playlist for Our Times of Self-Isolation

As coronavirus spreads throughout the world and many of us hunker down with online media, we offer eight songs that share our feeling of seclusion.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Music

PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists

If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by the quality readership of PopMatters.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Books
Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Film
Film

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The character's in Claude Chabrol's The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored, reflecting and refracting their hunger for sex, love, money, and power.

Film

'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

Film

What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.

Film

'The Serpent's Egg' Marks One of Ingmar Bergman's Strangest Efforts

The Serpent's Egg bares many of the Bergman's trademark features – the suffocating auras of despair and an underdog's sense of triumph over tragedy – but falls short of a more intelligent rendering of human drama.

Recent
Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Music

Lilly Hiatt - "Some Kind of Drug" (Singles Going Steady)

Lilly Hiatt sings about a different kind of love on "Some Kind of Drug". Hers is for a city and the impact gentrification has had its soul.

Music

There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington

The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Music

Weeks Island's 'Droste' Is a New High Water Mark in Ambient Steel (EP stream) (premiere)

Lost Bayou Ramblers' Jonny Campos turns up as Weeks Island with Brian Eno/Cluster-inspired music straight from the bayou. Hear Droste in full ahead of its release on Friday.

Music

Ireland's Junk Drawer Share New Krautrock Meets Post-Punk Song, "Temporary Day" (premiere)

Junk Drawer's "Temporary Day" is a simple yet compelling video for a gripping song that shows why the band have earned such acclaim in their native Ireland.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Music

Miranda Lambert - "Bluebird" (Singles Going Steady)

Miranda Lambert sings her blues the way an artist paints with them on her latest single, "Bluebird".

Music

'Stone Crush' Proves (Again) That Memphis Is Ground Zero for Soul and R&B

Stone Crush shines a light on the forgotten -- or never known -- artists that passed through the doors of Memphis' most storied studios in an attempt at just one fleeting moment of fame.

Music

Circles Around the Sun Shoot for the Stars on New Album

Jamrockers Circles Around the Sun's self-titled third album finds the band transcending darkness after losing their founder in 2019 to chart a groovy new course.

Music

Jazz's Kandace Springs Pays Tribute to 'The Women Who Raised Me'

Singer and pianist Kandace Springs tackles a dozen songs associated with her jazz vocal heroes, and the combination of simplicity and sincerity is winning.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.