Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
Although John Waters only admits that “reality is never as exciting as fiction” toward the end of Carsick, his three-part account of his cross-country hitchhiking journey, the book’s very conceit implies and corroborates the observation. For while Waters only hitchhikes across the country once, he envisions two alternate journeys—the best that can happen, the worst that can happen—before finally chronicling the real thing. That his imagined peregrinations are more entertaining than the actual journey is understood: hitchhiking has a reputation as a dangerous and glamorous American adventure, but, in Waters’s case, reality is far tamer and more mundane. Fiction is still firmly stranger yet, surprisingly, more truthful.
In “The Best That Can Happen,” Waters sketches a Waters fantasy world that, as luck would have it, he just happens to stumble across. “I could never make this shit up,” he assures us, when, in fact, only he could. As expected from the cult film director, the characters and settings are gleefully trashy and delightedly campy and over-the-top. Although his stated goal is to stay only on I-70W, he consistently winds up detouring in derelict, slightly post-apocalyptic settings—from a rave at a picked-apart car junkyard to a Hipster Carnival, where he enjoys huge success not as himself but as “The Man with No Tattoos.” He easily accesses a Waters version of the uniquely American fringe highway lore, a landscape replete with party drugs and guardian angel truckers, family-friendly demolition derbies and drivers who treat 1970s derby footage like porn, vaudeville police officers, exhibitionist bank robbers, and perverse but dedicated librarians “on a mission to … bring the customer the lowest of the low in literature.” And all of this is found just off one of the country’s main road arteries. This proximity nicely mirrors the writer’s own placement within the narrative: he is earnestly engaged yet nevertheless at a slight remove. He is an observer and a traveler first and foremost.
The exegetical distinction between Dante the pilgrim and Dante the poet comes to mind here. For Waters is present in the first two-thirds of the book both as author/director and as character. Waters has not only created the setting and the characters—even reviving a deceased actress he regularly cast in his movies—he also provides a soundtrack to the pilgrim’s travels, a constant source of awe for the latter. When “The Giggler” by Pat and the Wildcats comes on the radio, “that great obscure, astonishing garage rock instrumental,” Waters is amazed: “I thought I was the only one who knew that 45 r.p.m., but I guess I was wrong.” Therein lies the charm of this adventure: Waters the pilgrim seems to have wound up in a world that revolves around his obscure interests and alludes to his cinematic knowledge completely serendipitously. He treats his good luck with corresponding respect.
Conversely, “The Worst That Can Happen” proposes a nightmare scenario particular to Waters. Eventually he is murdered by a serial killer whose targets are cult filmmakers, among them Alejandro Jodorowsky and George Romero, before finally descending into a hell in which It’s a Wonderful Life plays for eternity. As such the first two parts are actually more autobiographical than “The Real Thing” in that they reveal more about Waters’s taste, interests, and preoccupations. His villains, for example, are fanatics of any kind—one guy is a militant vegan who thinks cooking is “a violation of the natural order of food,” another is a woman who feels discriminated against because she is sexually attracted to drug addicts (“Don’t needle tracks make you whack?” she demands). The contrast between the best-case and worst-case characters highlights the distinction Waters makes between living on the fringe and being an extremist. The book is a reminder that non-mainstream living is not equivalent to radicalism. Unconventional lifestyles do not have intrinsically positive or negative values. But nor does Waters look down on traditional living. Indeed, Waters seems most surprised by the kindness of strangers, but he is also startled by their ordinariness: “Here’s yet one more heterosexual man who loves his wife!” As such the third section is the least entertaining. Much of it is devoted to Waters waiting by the side of a freeway for hours. And yet, he manages to attract some characters and drama: a band that tweets about his presence on board; four people headed to North Dakota to take advantage of the fracking boom, one of whom is “a renegade … A pirate. A grifter when he has to be and maybe a bit of a fugitive”; a young Republican politician, nicknamed the Corvette Kid, who drives Waters a few hundred miles, then rejoins him for the tail end of his journey and who forces Waters to grapple with the question of whether to get one hotel room or two. The magic of the road makes occasional appearances; it is just a pale imitation of the fiction.
Still, despite the marked deceleration, the third section is saved by Waters’s language, which is the backbone of the whole endeavor. Imagination alone is not enough. If the absurdity of the situation isn’t adequately described, it will be ineffectual. And Waters’s writing is unusual: a strange mixture of wholesome speech—“Rip it up, Pop” he imagines a son saying to his father—allusions to all kinds of pop culture, and hilariously descriptive phrases with some lines of dialogue that would not be out of place in 1970s porn. He’s not concerned with highly stylized language. Rather the humor comes from the straightforwardness with which he describes preposterous situations. Thus we get such phrases as “demolition lust,” “serenely demented garden-club enthusiast,” and “sexually neurotic suspicions.” The precision both heightens and naturalizes the extraordinariness of his adventures. He writes with such lucid joy and verve that it is impossible not to consider this book a “lighthearted romp,” as overused as that phrase may be. For a romp it is, if not a family-friendly one.