by Kati Heng
I have a love/hate relationship with John Waters. Mostly love, though. I look forward to watching the next movie (I’ve only seen about five of his) with utter fascination, googling all the trivia online, getting so excited about what sick things may happen. Then I watch it and am like “why the fuck did I think I would be able to eat chips during this?” as images of assholes (not mean people, literal buttholes) implant themselves forever on my impressionable mind. I’m pretty sure my boyfriend hates whenever I try to rent a film – I don’t think I let him touch me for a week after watching Pink Flamingoes, I just kept screaming “PERVERT!!” whenever he got close to me. Yet, I keep watching. I memorize those lines like I’m about to audition. I watch the behind-the-scenes features, during which, most surprisingly of all, John Waters seems like a nice old uncle.
This is the first Waters book I’ve read (he’s got a bunch more of various themes and popularity), so really, I had no idea what to expect. Could words ever get as visceral as watching people throw up on film? Would this book just be a bunch of metaphors about throwing up? Would John Waters come off worse than some gay Woody-Allen pervert?
Surprisingly, while narrating Carsick, Waters comes off as a sensible, normal guy. His plan, the premise of the book may be crazy enough – Waters plans to hitchhike from his home in Baltimore all the way to his apartment in San Francisco, alone. John Waters is also probably the only person who COULD do this – I know if I tried, you’d probably read a report of my rape/murder somewhere in Pennsylvania. But a 66-year-old gay cult film director? He’d be fine, right?
So Waters tells himself in his head, just before the first of the book’s three parts, a novella about the best hitchhiking experience he could possibly have. It’s funny – the voice narrating this is so calm and collected, so ordinary and relatable, but then, he presents these scenarios of an “ideal” trip that nobody would ever think ideal, ever. My ideal hitchhiking experience? I get picked up by a cool late twenties chick shuttling some vintage records all the way to San Fran; we stay together the entire time; I never get murdered. Waters’ idea of an ideal trip? Riding in a car with an Army of God driving instructor locked in the trunk, screaming at the man, “I wish I was a girl so I could get an abortion!” Getting picked up by a dishonorably discharged librarian with a mission to collect novels based on the porn based on major motion pictures (for instance, Homo Alone). Spending his night at the home of a man who gets off watching cars demolish each other. Best road trip ever, right??
And then, to play Devil’s Advocate, he imagines the very worst that could happen on his trip. Which really, in some cases, didn’t sound all that different from some of the best things that could happen. Like, he could get stuck in a car with a fan who just constantly wanted to quote lines from his films back and forth. People could forcibly tattoo him. He could have to ride on a MOTORCYCLE. He could develop a goiter and run out of supplies to shade in his mustache!!
Finally, Waters does the real thing and records for us. The results are somewhere in between the best that could happen and the worst (he meets nice people; he spends a lot of time getting passed by, standing alone in the rain). There are parts that seem too story-lined to be true, like his getting picked up by an indie band out on tour, and parts that are so hilariously close to home, you know that’s how it would be for real, like this kid being texted minute after minute by his mother, she being worried to death about what her son is doing with some weird hitchhiker.
Maybe the best part about all these real rides is simply watching Waters open up the views on certain types of people he thought he knew to a T. For instance, his first ride comes from a middle-aged woman, his second from a minister’s wife, even though he was sure women would never pick him up (and he understood why). Waters meets lots of happily married hetero men, a genre he didn’t even believe existed before.
And even better, we get to watch what this road trip does to the young and impressionable driver Waters refers to simply as ‘The Corvette Kid.” A 20-year-old Republican small town city-councilor, the Corvette Kid picks Waters up at the beginning of his trip, takes him beyond the borders of his own destination before saying goodbye. Later, the kid wants to help again and ends up taking Waters through much of the West, experiencing much of America for the first time, despite getting texts from his friends that say shit like “Way to go, you’re with a gay man in a hotel room in Reno?” Hey, if you don’t get Waters, you don’t get him.
Fiction and a real-life hitch-hiking story all in one book, written by the master of trash – really, do you need a better tagline for me to sell this? Oh, and in case you’re wondering, this book didn’t leave me pushing my boyfriend away or grimacing at complete strangers. It just left me with the hope that there’s still some pretty neat people out there.