John Waters Paints The American Highway As A Weird And Wonderful Place In 'Carsick' Hitchhiking Memoir

Photo: Bradley Brownell
Photo: Bradley Brownell

I was recently pawing through the stacks at my local library ,and my automotive-addled brain saw a dustjacket with the word “Car” in the title, and the grey matter piloted my flesh-and-bone mech suit to pick it up. The grey matter was immediately given a dose of serotonin as it discovered the book to be a series of short stories written by surrealist and absurdist American filmmaker, writer, actor, and artist John Waters as he embarked on a cross-country hitchhiking adventure from Baltimore to San Francisco. “Oh, this is going to be good. I don’t need to know any more, I’m already sold,” I said to myself as I shuffled the tome toward the checkout counter.

I was right, but I had no idea just how right I would be. Nobody hitchhikes anymore, least of all famous people with money. The act of thumbing around the country was once quite popular decades ago, but the act has been discouraged and outright banned in many states. The decline in hitchhiking has less to do with a fear of serial killers and opportunities to murder vagrants, and more to do with the proliferation of automobiles. Fewer people need to do it, so fewer people do it.

This experiment by Waters was always going to be an interesting one, but he obviously had to put his own spin on it, playing up the dramatics and absurdity of the world. The book is broken into three parts, the first two sections representing a series of short fiction stories in a best- and worst-case scenarios for how the trip could have gone. The final third of the book chronicles the reality of how the trip went (with a little embellishment).


Waters’ dream scenarios often feature homoerotic quasi-pornographic segments, like the one in which he has sex with an alien and wakes up with a magic rectum. In many of the nightmare scenarios, Waters spends the entirety of the trip barely escaping death — and the cops — only to wind up in hell anyway.

Out in the real world, hitchhiking across the country actually went pretty well for our protagonist. He departed his Baltimore home armed with credit cards, a cell phone, and a GPS tracker for his staff to keep track of his whereabouts in case anything went awry. He was picked up and driven by fairly normal regular Joes and Janes. A farmer, a coal miner, a youth-filled Corvette-driving Republican, and the indie band Here We Go Magic.

Like much of Waters’ career, this book isn’t the greatest thing I’ve ever read, but it’s provocative and fun. It’s 322 pages of raucous and outrageous prose, in a way a love letter to the weirdness that is everyday life in middle-America. Most of the people on the road don’t recognize Waters, or mistake him for Steve Buscemi, and he’s often treated better by the strangers who don’t recognize him than the fans who do. It’s a quick and fun read, you should pick up a copy and give it a go.

Does it make me want to hitchhike across America? In a way, yes. Especially if I get a magic rectum out of the deal.

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