Cruising alone down our respective roads, we may grow bored of our own company or suspicious of our thoughts. Along the way, we may, from time to time, pull over and pick up some ratty-looking thing that holds, if nothing else, the promise of a good story. And if not that, then at least a voice to help pass the time. The duration of our ride together ultimately depends upon the depth of our connection. Books are hitchhikers.
And should you deign to pick up the ratty-looking thing that is “Carsick’’ — the true and untrue tales of avant-raunch director John Waters’s cross-country hitchhiking jag, told in two novellas and a travelogue — you may arrive at the end of the trip surprised how easily you surrendered the wheel to a total stranger and how far from your destination you’ve strayed.
The world of Waters, whose film credits include innocence-savaging, aggro-camp classics like “Pink Flamingos,’’ “Female Trouble,” and “Desperate Living,’’ is a resolutely filthy one, composed almost entirely of things I can’t really get into here. And though Waters made his name concocting cocktails of lows and (often chemical) highs strong enough to scorch the sinuses (when, for instance, in “Flamingos,’’ the feral and ample drag queen Divine howls, “This is a direct attack on my Divinity!” upon receiving a turd in the mail for her birthday), the buzz you get is distinctly American.
Crossing the country by thumb ain’t what it used to be. Adrift in malaise after dejamming some quarters from the slot of a washer at a La Quinta in Denver, Waters rightly observes, “Reality is never as exciting as fiction.” He thus saves the truth (i.e. not the best) for last, and front-loads the book with two fantasy novellas: “The Best That Could Happen” and its even dirtier counterpart, “The Worst That Could Happen.” Both give readers a generous helping of the wet man with the pencil mustache and “I’m Not Psycho” sign that they pulled over for.
In the best-case scenario, this means an uninterrupted stream of altruistic indie-film buffs, cops huffing vials of amyl nitrate, sex-starved truckers hauling discontinued Jujyfruits, fugitive “hipsters” (in quotes only because Waters’s definition is charmingly and defiantly preserved in post-Beat amber and has little to do with Pabst Blue Ribbon or tight jeans), and, without spoiling the story or your snowlike purity any further, an episode that I can only say arrives at an enchanted end.
Throughout, beloved names of pop, pulp, porn, and drag drop in and are dropped, and the car radios all blare scratched-up greasy old road-rambling records from Nervous Norvus, Bobby Curtola, and Connie Francis. Everyone is horny, tweaked, drunk, wild, fearless, stupid, hopped up on something, game for anything, and in love with everything. So of course, it’s a setup.
Waters is at his best at his worst. The dystopian road diary of the second novella in “Carsick” is brutal, vile, and for anyone whose teen years were delightfully distended by the more gut-churning scenes from his oeuvre, satisfying in their relentless pursuit of gross. Along the way, he’s beaten, vandalized, kidnapped, and variously infected and abused. The side of the road — with its heaves of trash, impromptu latrines, smears of roadkill, and skid marks of past disasters — is Waters’s turf, and he’s never claimed it more clearly.
After two long rides through Waters’s visions of ecstasy and agony, the straight story feels, as Waters describes a Mediterranean veggie roll at a Denver shopping center cafe, “screamingly average.” An uneasy success story in 21 rides, Waters meets some interesting enough characters in reality — he’s picked up by touring indie band Here We Go Magic, a curiously game 20-year-old casually bent on upsetting his parents, a small-town mayor, and some kindly apparent meth-heads. But most striking is the coldness he encounters on his journey: the long waits on rainy ramps, the stony silence and averted eyes at rest areas.
Waters doesn’t bore us with theories as to why the open road has become so much less open; he allows his nasty nostalgic fantasies to hint at the abandon so absent from our lives. It’s a ride that may have you reaching for Dramamine, but this panoramic view of Waters’s uniquely twisted American landscape is also a reminder that in taking him for a ride, we’re only just barely beginning to return the favor.
Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.