I did not become a fan of the work of writer & director John Waters until about seven years ago. Shortly after I began dating Michele in 2008, I finally watched some of Waters’ movies from the 1970s. Michele is a long-time fan of the so-called “Pope of Trash” and she showed me his cult classics at the first opportunity. I found his work both shocking and hysterical.
Last month Waters was doing a talk and signing at The Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn to promote the paperback release of his latest book Carsick. I immediately jumped at the opportunity to meet the famed (or should that be infamous?) filmmaker. Michele had already met him several years before at a previous book signing but she was happy to come along.
Carsick is subtitled John Waters Hitchhikes Across America, and that is exactly what it is about. In 2012 the then 66 year old Waters came up with the oddball idea of thumbing rides from Baltimore to San Francisco, to see what sorts of people he’d meet & experiences he’d have, and then to write a book about it.
In addition to recounting his actual experiences, Waters indulges in quite a bit of fiction. Prior to starting his journey west, Waters wrote the first two parts of Carsick, entitled “The Best That Could Happen” and “The Worst That Could Happen.” He hypothesizes about what would be the ideal cross-country journey, as well as pondering the most horrible things that could possibly take place.
In that first part Waters effortlessly finds one ride after another and each driver is the epitome of awesome: a millionaire pot dealer, a contestant in a demolition derby, the world’s coolest bank robber, a traveling carnival, and so on. Conversely, in the second installment the absolute most awful events occur as Waters get picked up by a succession of freaks, among them an alcoholic, a demented fan of his movies, a serial killer groupie, a militant vegetarian, and a fanatical animal rights activist.
It amazes me that a few people asked Waters if any of what occurred in these parts actually took place. He explained in his foreword that the first two thirds of the book are fiction, but I suppose some readers could have skipped that part. However, you’d think that they would have realized that this was made-up right around the point where Waters gets abducted by a spaceship full of horny homosexual aliens!
These two segments of Carsick feel very much they could be from an unproduced screenplay. Waters is still a brilliantly twisted writer, with a real ear for memorably offensive dialogue. I think that perhaps the tone of his screenplays meant that they were very effective in his underground films of the 1970s and early 80s. In contrast, Waters’ more recent movie, the over-the-top, sexually explicit A Dirty Shame (2004), did not come together as well because the larger budget, well-known actors and slick production values seemed decidedly at odds with his subversive, irreverent sensibilities.
Keeping that in mind, Carsick actually works better than some of Waters’ latter forays into motion pictures. His wit is still sharp, his imagination as warped as ever. Reading the book I easily pictured in my mind’s eye his vignettes as being filmed fast & loose on a shoestring budget, just like in the old days.
Anyone who has ever seen Waters’ movies is undoubtedly aware that he delights in putting his characters through all manner of weird, obscene, and just plain awful experiences. It’s interesting to discover that he’s willing to put his fictional self through exactly the same sorts of misadventures and humiliations. For all his namedropping and self-promotion, Waters also undoubtedly possesses a very self-deprecating wit.
The third and final part of Carsick is titled “The Real Thing” and, yes, it recounts what actually took place when Waters was hitchhiking. Real life is never all-good or all-bad, so Waters’ journey is somewhere in-between the exciting adventures he envisioned in “The Best” and the terrors he conjured up in “The Worst.” He ends up waiting long hours at a time for rides, often while stuck in torrential downpours or stifling heat. The drivers who do eventually pick him up are not the awesome oddballs of his fantasies, but neither are they the criminally insane motorists of his nightmares. They were for the most part nice, friendly and normal.
So in the end Waters met some interesting people from across the country and had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. He definitely does an entertaining job recounting his journey.
If you are a fan of Waters’ movies then I expect that you will find Carsick to be an enjoyable read. It is funny and offensive and at times surprisingly sentimental. It has some of the feel of Waters’ early classics such as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living and Polyester. One of my favorite lines from Carsick is “My asshole is doing a duet with Connie Francis!” That should give you a pretty good idea of the tone of the book!
By the way, the cover artwork for Carsick is by Kagan McLeod, whose work I’ve previously seen in comic books and a number of magazines & newspapers. It’s a nice piece. McLeod captures Waters’ likeness as well as his larger-than-life personality.