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.