John Waters gets a lot of action in Carsick. There’s a hot J. G. Ballardian encounter with a demolition–derby driver, a visit to an orgiastic “pirate truck stop”, and a full-on love affair with a geronto-philous 28-year-old cutlery salesman by the name of Delmont Perkins, all of it very lustily described in the filmmaker-author’s newest book.
He is also sexually assaulted by an alien at one point while riding with his favourite gay porn star, Johnny Davenport—a too-close encounter that leaves Waters with a “magic asshole and a new head of hair”.
None of this is real, of course (except maybe the alien part). When the man once reviled as the Prince of Puke decided three years ago to hit the road and hitchhike from his home in Baltimore to his other home in San Francisco, he preluded the escapade by imagining, at length, the best and worst that could happen on the road to a thumb-tripping, retirement-age trash fiend sporting a pencil mustache and a cardboard sign reading “I’m not psycho.”
These fantasy scenarios provide Carsick (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) with its wild first two-thirds, which read like a clearing-house for the man’s psyche or maybe the greatest John Waters film never made.
“I wrote a book where I have a magic asshole that sings a duet with Connie Francis and it’s the Number 8 best-selling book in the New York Times two weeks in a row,” the author says, calling the Georgia Straight from Provincetown, Massachusetts. “The public’s changed; I haven’t. And that’s amazing to me.”
This isn’t strictly true. By the time Waters really does make the journey—providing Carsick with its final section—he starts to sound a little different from the guy who encouraged obesity as a style choice in his brilliant 1986 collection Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters. It’s a food court full of fat kids in Denver that does it.
“Well, you turn it into a style,” says the writer-director of 1988’s fat-lib masterpiece Hairspray. “I still agree with it, but I agree with Michelle Obama in a way, too. I mean, Divine died because he was fat. Every fat girl that comes to see me now, and plenty of them do, every one of them looks great. They all look like Bettie Page; they have tattoos; they look like roller-derby girls. There’s no fat girls that I see ever anymore that are sitting around feeling pitiful. They’ve got a look. And it’s a great look, but still, I’m saying there’s a limit to it where it’s just really unhealthy. I was just shocked to see so many 14-year-olds weighing 300 pounds sitting there.”
Maybe not quite as shocking but certainly as depressing, Waters is also forced to hole up in a series of roadside hotels as he makes his way westward. He cheerfully resists any deeper reading of Carsick, but anyone familiar with the Waters doctrine of good bad taste over bad bad taste is forced to wonder how he really coped with such a dreary parade of homogeneously prefab Holiday Inns. The lurid midcentury Americana venerated in every Waters film from Multiple Maniacs in 1970 to 2004’s A Dirty Shame is disappearing, fast.
“It’s not any taste,” he says. “It’s worse, and the local colour has faded. Well, no, Kansas is amazing, and New Wellington [Nevada], those little towns I talked about, are amazing, but as far as when you go into the only hotels available, they are all the same, and they’re not anything. They’re not horrible, they’re not great—they’re just nothing. Except bad lighting.”
Even more dismaying, he adds: “Nobody’s having sex in motels anymore.”
On the upside, Carsick glosses over America’s changing landscape (“I’m not nostalgic,” Waters insists. “I always think tomorrow’s more interesting.”) and turns instead to a warm celebration of the people—from a young Republican to a minister’s wife to a traumatized ex-Marine and her Charlie Manson–look-alike boyfriend—who dared to open their car door to a man who describes himself as looking like a John Waters impersonator, “only older”.
Even then, given the giddiness he brings to the “worst” section of the book, including his death by decapitation at the hands of a cult-movie-hating serial killer who blows a load of venereally infected jizz into Waters’s eyes as he croaks, you wonder if the author was kinda disappointed that nothing really bad happened out there.
“No,” he replies, chuckling. “I was disappointed that nothing really sexual happened, because I thought even if I had to spend the night with that one trucker—and, believe me, he had on flip-flops; he was not something you really wanted to hop in the sack with in the back of a truck—it would have been good for the book.
“So would I have sacrificed myself sexually for literature? Yes. But it never came up. It’s very different when you’re hitchhiking when you’re 18 and when you’re 66, believe me.”