Carsick

CARSICK: JOHN WATERS HITCHHIKES ACROSS AMERICA
By John Waters

John Waters knows that hitchhiking across the United States, which means in his case taking the I-70 from Baltimore to San Francisco, is an old-fashioned sort of idea. Before setting out, one of his friends even warns him that “No one picks up hitchhikers these days . . . no one!”

And that’s probably not far from the truth. But the 66-year-old Waters is nothing if not a retro kind of guy – a proto-hipster spiritually attached to old movies, old songs, and old cars – and so being a throwback to the twentieth century makes him a perfect candidate for this archaic form of going “on the road.”

Even more helpful is the fact that he is a bona fide celebrity, the director of such cult films as Pink Flamingos and Hairspray. A lot of the drivers he meets recognize him, and indeed this is why they stop to pick him up. Without a Q rating he might still be standing by an on ramp somewhere in Kansas.

Like its author, Carsick is funny, entertaining, and odd in a genial sort of way. It begins with two fictional novellas that have Waters envisioning the very best and then the very worst that could happen. In the good scenarios everyone loves him, and the sex is great. In the bad version the people who pick him up are psychos, and the sex is profoundly damaging.

These preliminary imaginings tell us a lot about what to expect when the rubber hits the road in the final section, “the real thing.” Waters isn’t thumbing his away across the continent as a form of immersive journalism, an investigation into some hidden, authentic America. He is on an ego trip and looking for adventure, or at the very least enough material to make a book out of.

The irony, then, is that the “real” journey is a mediated event. Of course he is being tracked by GPS throughout by his staff back in Baltimore, and it isn’t long before his journey goes viral on the Internet, attracting blog posts, tweets, and mainstream news coverage. He even picks up a groupie he dubs the Corvette Kid who shadows him almost the entire way.

Nearing the end of this “irrational vacation” he realizes that he’s “just appearing on a reality show that’s not being filmed.” And we all know how real that is.

There is, in other words, something artificial and unreal about the expedition. Carsick is a reality-TV vision of the simple life with Waters cast as Paris Hilton: an ironic, slumming celeb, worried about gaining weight on a diet of junk food and keeping an alert eye out for cute boys.

Though Waters would probably object to that use of the word “slumming.” If there’s one thing he feels his journey has taught him it’s that the “flyover people” of Middle America, so often derided by “elitist jerks,” really are the salt of the earth.

Except his trip also reinforces his feeling that he has nothing in common with the common folk. Their most impressive virtue, in his eyes, is spousal fidelity, which is something he respects but is surprised by. Meanwhile, travelers of the I-70 work and shop at places like Wal-Mart, a store he has never entered, and the “normal people” he sees in Taco Bell (the only fast-food he will eat) seem like “aliens” to him. Watching them feed he feels “almost jealous of their lives.”

Like any entertainer what Waters really wants out of other people is an audience. His trip isn’t a journey of discovery but a roadshow. As such, it’s a joy ride, full of the sort of infectious enthusiasm that has him breaking into choruses of “Yay!”, “Whee!”, “What a great ride!”, and “Wow!”

But at the same time you can’t help feeling he’s missing a lot. Picked up mainly by fans and followed all the while on Facebook, he crosses the country without ever leaving a bubble.

He is all the way to Colorado before he and the Corvette Kid pass another hitchhiker, the first one he has seen on the entire trip. They don’t stop.

“I know,” Waters says. “I know.” No one picks up hitchhikers these days.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star July 2, 2014.