Years ago one of my favorite shows on television involved George Plimpton. In the name of "participatory journalism," Plimpton would try out for a job as a circus acrobat, or maybe he'd try to be a stand-up comic at the Apollo theater. He was tall and sort of clumsy, and he had a posh New England accent that always made him sound like a fop, but he was just so damned admirable. A hell of a writer, too.
I kept thinking of Plimpton as I read John Waters' Carsick, an attempt at participatory journalism of which Plimpton would have approved, I'm sure. Waters, director of such cult classics as Pink Flamingos and Hairspray, hasn't directed a film in years, but has refashioned himself as a filthy bon vivant. I liked parts of his last book, Role Models, and had anticipated Carsick the way I used to anticipate his movies.
The story is about Waters' hitchhiking adventure from Baltimore to San Francisco. A hitcher in his youth, Waters feels brave and bold as, nearing 70, he hits the off ramps and truck stops of America, meeting a variety of kindhearted people along the way. Some recognize him instantly, but the best chapters are about the people who have no clue about "The Prince of Puke."
The book is divided into three sections, the first two being Waters' fantasies about what could go right or wrong on his journey. Despite being as outre as his movies, the fantasy chapters aren't quite as interesting as the real life chapters where he stands in pounding rain as one car after another ignores him. There's an underlying story in Carsick, and it's about a man who yanks himself out of his comfort zone and subjects himself to punishment. Waters makes light of his situations, but there's always the impression that Waters is testing himself, testing his endurance, testing his coolness under fire. Can he do actually do this?
There's also a slight sense of melancholy here. Waters can no longer get proper funding for his movies, which is a sorry comment on the state of movie making these days. As he hits different locations in Carsick, he recalls scenes from his movies, especially Pink Flamingos. Waters is not an outwardly sentimental man, but there's a sense here of a man looking back on an incredible life, and feeling lost and uncomfortable as he enters a new phase.
Waters encounters people from all walks of life during this journey, but aside from a perky young Republican fellow known as 'The Corvette Kid,' these good and kind folks of the road blur together. I attribute some of this to Waters' compact writing style - he's as anal with his prose as I imagine he is with his closets. He sometimes surprises me with his writing, making his points with an economy of language that is impressive, but at other times I wish he'd written more about a particular person or place. That's why the book, despite a few funny moments and a final act that moves like a race horse, is unsatisfying.
Waters occasionally comes off as an elitist, sneering at the complimentary breakfasts offered by the various motels, or grousing about his meal at the Outback Steakhouse. He also sounds shockingly naive when he marvels at the kindness of heterosexuals. When Waters praises some straight man for loving his wife and family, which he does repeatedly throughout the story, he sounds as dumb as a white person who has wandered into a black neighborhood and is surprised that he doesn't hear gunfire. It's clear from Carsick that Waters lives in a bubble. He writes as if his readers are all rich, gay movie buffs and, like him, have never been inside a Walmart. Carsick is Waters' communique from the front lines of America's heartland, where there are plenty of cute truckers to admire, as long as you can survive the packaged donuts.
To Waters' credit as a writer, I felt like I was on the road with him. I felt his anguish and desperation when he seemed to be stranded, and I felt relieved when he was finally able to crash out on a lumpy hotel mattress. His climactic arrival in California was also a relief, as is the end of any long, unpleasant journey. But there came that airtight style again, and a quick wrap-up, as if he'd decided terseness was preferable to a long, sloppy goodbye. He saves the slop for the acknowledgment page, praising the people who picked him up as "the only heroes in this book," although I'm sure some of the people who passed him by were perfectly decent.