Thumbing Rides with the Pope of Trash
Review by Constance Moss
Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America
John WatersFarrar, Strauss and Giroux
John Waters, the notorious writer/director behind Pink Flamingos and Cecil B. Demented, has hitchhiked cross-country and lived to tell the tale in his latest novel Carsick. The book is divided into three novellas: first, a fictional account of all the positive turns the trip could take, followed by all the potentially nightmarish misadventures he might have along the way and, lastly, the real account of Waters' journey.
With Carsick, Waters intentionally chooses to maintain a sophomoric attitude. This may not land him a spot on the New York Times Best Sellers List, but it does make for a playful interaction with the reader.
Carsick is a mixed bag of the brilliant and the underwhelming. Outlandish and side-splitting as they can be at times, the fictional accounts of the first two novellas become structurally redundant and formulaic. Though Waters' tales of truck-stop strip clubs, drag queens, circus freaks and demolition derbies are a crass and beautiful ode to Americana, they are overshadowed by numerous references to his own movie plots and verbatim recitations of his characters' lines. Waters takes the reader on many detours down memory lane, which is, at times, riveting and, at others, overtly masturbatory.
The real-life hitchhiking accounts in the third novella paint a more verdant emotional landscape. Strangers get to know each other within the confines of pickup trucks and Corvettes, and what they choose to share about themselves during relationships that sometimes endure only for a short trip is revelatory. Armed with nothing but cardboard signs, a satchel and some rain gear, the Pope of Trash is often mistaken for a bum or transient. The trusting samaritans who take him along are sometimes incredulous when told of his accomplishments as a filmmaker and writer. The seemingly unembellished tales of his true ride-bumming make for an endearing escapade without the trite clichés of important life lessons. This is no Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants—just a good trip with a fun American icon.
Waters’ writing style is organic and unpolished, implying that John did, indeed, write Carsick without the help of a ghost writer. He maintains his DIY street cred, which he could easily be tempted to forfeit, given the money and resources afforded him at this stage in his career. With Carsick, Waters intentionally chooses to maintain a sophomoric attitude. This may not land him a spot on the New York Times Best Sellers List, but it does make for a playful interaction with the reader. It may even encourage many a new writer as it conveys the notion, “If I can write a book, anyone can.”
Carsick is a light and silly page turner. With no plot lines or character arcs to follow, it's the perfect companion to bring along to the dentist's office or the airport. John Waters' charming personality makes the redundancy and self-indulgence of this book more forgivable. The book could be more dynamic if the fictional stories were peppered in with the factual accounts of John's road tripping adventure. By the time the reader arrives at the third novella, “The Real Thing,” it feels like the book has prematurely run its course—but this last section turns out to be the most gratifying. This book is very true to Waters' work and, like his films, you will thoroughly enjoy Carsick if you accept it at face value.
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