John Waters fans, prepare to cringe with envy. For a few days mid-May 2012, the man himself was right there on the side of the road—yours for the taking!—like an impossibly fabulous couch (does Comme des Garçons upholster?). He was researching a book sold on what could be history’s shortest pitch: “I, John Waters, will hitchhike alone from the front of my Baltimore house to my co-op apartment in San Francisco and see what happens,” Waters writes in Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America. “.... Am I fucking nuts?”
Neurotic, perhaps. Always charming. Very funny. At times the famously mustachioed director of Hairspray, Pink Flamingos and Serial Mom held a hand-hewn cardboard sign proclaiming “I’m Not Psycho”—to varying results.
For those who missed the most notable notecard of Route 70 west, Carsick represents a second chance to pick Waters up. The book is divided into three sections, including a memoir, “The Real Thing,” which captures highs (“I like Ruby Tuesday, I decide, feeling that I’m almost passing for a normal person”) and lows (“I’m sure I now look like a sopping-wet junkie Mary Poppins”). It’s preceded by two fictional accounts: “The Best That Could Happen” and “The Worst That Could Happen.” In Waters’ wildest dreams, one driver pledges $5 million, joins a hipster carnival and is abducted by magical oversexed aliens; his nightmares include being bitten on the butt by a rabid roadside raccoon and forceful unsanitary tattooing.
Waters kindly applies his powers of projection to an interview with Kirkus Reviews: “The best case would be, of course, if you liked the book. That, since you’re a trade publication, you would say you think people are going to like it and buy it, and that you would ask me some funny questions. I always try to give different answers every time I do interviews. The worst would be that you hadn’t read the book, that you didn’t like it—contempt before investigation—didn’t like my other work, and had it in for me.”
In Kirkus’ best-case scenario, Waters discloses what he really thinks about John Travolta playing Edna Turnblad. “I thought he did a good job. He played it like Anna Nicole Smith that got fat, or a Playboy bunny or a cheerleader that at one time was hot, and then got fat, and that’s a pretty different interpretation of the way that I originally did it—I think that’s why each time they did a remake of Hairspray, it was successful because they did change it. It was never the same, and that’s why it worked,” he says. “Divine played it very realistically, as a woman in East Baltimore would have, somebody that was wore muumuus and pin curls and took in ironing.”
If Waters is this companionable by phone, he must be a treat across a bench seat. Some (real) drivers who picked him up were fans; others had never heard of him or his many movies. A few thought he was a hobo and tried to give him money.
No matter the ride, Waters strove to provide excellent company. “I love to hear about other people’s lives. That’s why I’m a good hitchhiker, because I don’t want to talk about myself—I mean, I will to get a ride, but I much prefer to listen to them, and people who pick up hitchhikers want to talk. In the best and worst chapters, I always had great music that comes on the radio, because there’s so many great hitchhiking songs I wanted to talk about, but no one played the radio, ever,” he says. (A Carsick playlist can be found at the back of the book.)
When entertaining from the passenger’s seat, Waters takes the same approach to storytelling as he does to making movies or writing books. “To me, a good storyteller loves the subject matter. You can be funny and be mean, but it only lasts for a short time, then it gets tiring. My specialty has always been praising things that most people don’t like. You don’t hear me saying negative things, unless it’s about something that everyone else loves. Certainly, if you’re going to make fun of others, you have to make fun of yourself first—and it can’t be too longwinded. Humor is brevity. There’s no such thing as a long good funny movie, or a long good funny novel. ... That’s why in Carsick each chapter is short. To me it’s like each one’s a little movie.”
With dozens of chapters to choose from, Carsick is bound to delight most readers. “There are parts in it that will make you laugh, that will make you retch, will make you believe in the basic goodness of people. I think in the long run this book is very optimistic, and one chapter’s even a little bit sentimental. I think there’s something in it for everybody, as long as you have a sense of humor about yourself and are willing to get in any car,” he says in an ominous rumble. “That’s what I’m asking you to do—come along with me! Some of them are idiots, some of them are great, and some of them are real.”
Megan Labrise thinks that people are going to like and buy Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America. She is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.