The idea for John Waters’ latest book—which is all right there in the title, Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America—was probably an easy sell to his publisher, though the cult film director had to build up his own nerve before actually committing to it. And even then, Waters didn’t fully commit; he leaves his house in Baltimore with plenty of cash and credit cards, his phone, a GPS tracking device, and a “fame kit,” in case he needs to use his celebrity to get him out of a jam. And, once he hits the road, Waters doesn’t shy away from staying in hotels or considering various ways of cheating.
But none of that matters, because Carsick isn’t about the general challenge of hitchhiking from Baltimore to San Francisco, it’s about John Waters being John Waters—super-friendly, outgoing, extremely comfortable with being gay, and a little nervous about being out in the wild. And Carsick doesn’t simply document the Pink Flamingos and Hairspray director’s surprisingly short journey: Before he hit the road—perhaps knowing that his fiction was probably going to be stranger than truth—Waters wrote a pair of novellas, which make up the first two-thirds of Carsick. The titles, again, tell the story: “The Best That Could Happen” and “The Worst That Could Happen.”
In Waters’ wild, inward-focused imagination, the ultimate road-trip fantasies include a drug-dealing fan who wants to finance his new movie, no questions asked; an escaped convict with a raging hard-on; and a rare-book collector whose tastes run even more perverse than his own. Most of the imaginary friends he meets on these flights of fancy are fans of his movies—quoting lines and asking questions about his stars. In another writer-director’s hands, this might seem gauche, but Waters loves and is fascinated by his own celebrity, and he wears it well. And in the harrowing/hilarious “Worst” chapters, it even comes back to bite him in the ass (not literally, but that wouldn’t have been out of the question).
“The Real Thing” section, delivered last, can’t compare in the strangeness department. Waters’ preparations are funny: He thinks traveling from Baltimore to San Francisco will only take five days, and he packs just enough underwear so that he can throw them away. Roadside hotels like Days Inn and La Quinta are like foreign countries to him, though he embraces them with his usual gregariousness. And the people who pick him up, though he seems to fall in love with each and every one, are pretty ordinary—save for The Corvette Kid, who seems determined to make the entire trek with him. Some immediately recognize him, like the indie band Here We Go Magic, who treat him like a god, and whose social media outed this secret trip. Some people try to force money on him, thinking he’s homeless. (That’s what happens when you run out of moisturizer, apparently.) But most are just nice, normal, and either vaguely aware of who Waters is or at least interested that he’s a celebrity. To his great credit, Waters is delighted to meet every single one of them, and grateful that they helped facilitate his not-too-perilous journey.