Tom Hagemann
Tom Hagemann asked:

I wonder why this thread is full of resentful gripes & lack of praise for Waters' imaginative 3 way format? (& BTW, what a trippy, funny & ultimately uplifting thing of him to do).

Preston Pairo Growing up outside Baltimore in the 1970's, I was introduced to John Waters' films when I was in high school by a friend who was so far ahead of the rest of us in his exposure to art and cinema it's even more startling now looking back on it.

Waters' early films never shocked or offended me (far from it), but I never found them that entertaining. The same can be said for his later, more mainstream efforts. But while his movies never engaged me, Waters' personality did, and I have always found him to be a great guest on talk shows.

Because I enjoy hearing Waters tell a story, I listened to his excellent narration of the audiobook of Carsick instead of reading the print version, and recommend others consider this approach. Waters' writing style is very conversational and makes for good listening--so much so that it overcomes what I consider the many shortcomings of this book.

For as fine a storyteller as Waters may be, that talent doesn't translate well into fiction writing, which is 2/3 of this book.

Water's concept is interesting and I can see how it made for a successful pitch to his book publisher: present three separate tellings of a hitchhiking trip across America, from Baltimore to San Francisco: a fictional "good trip" version, a fictional "bad trip" version, and an autobiographical true account of Waters' actual journey.

As for the two fictional accounts: I tried but couldn't get through them even with Waters' terrific narration. Maybe the content would work better in film, where characters and scenes could come to visual life, but in print (or audio) the stories seemed shallow and almost sophomoric, as if a high school junior was trying to craft wild tales for his creative writing class.

Waters' fictional characters are too cartoonish and, worse, lack depth. And because Waters, as first-person protagonist, is the main character in these fictional accounts, he hasn't created a hero (or anti-hero) we can root for (or against). It's why when you tell someone about a spectacular dream you had that their eyes glaze over: you are the main character in that dream and that you are now recounting the story none the worse for wear, nor improved nor changed, devalues the story. (An exception to this dream rule might be if a woman you have always lusted after tells you she had an incredible sex dream about you, but how often does that happen?)

The third section of Carsick (the autobiographical version of the cross-country trek) is what saves it. Without the "true" story, which alone I would rate as a 4, I would have rated this book 1 star instead of 3.

My reference to the autobiographical section as being "true" is not to imply I don't believe Waters' retelling of his very bold and creative real life effort, but because I expected (hoped) the events would have been more real, as guttural and grainy as those early Waters' films.

Carsick isn't undercover journalism, like Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, where the author, in 1998, made a true attempt to get by working minimum wage jobs. Carsick is about a famous person not so secretly hoping drivers will recognize him and pick him up while hitchhiking, to get him from his home, successful international film career, and full-time staff of assistants in Baltimore to his second home in expensive, trendy San Francisco. For as much as it wants to feel like tight-rope walking, it's doing so with a net and safety line.

Without spoiling more than a touch of the true story, drivers end up going out of their way for Waters (in one case to the point of becoming a private driver) because they know who he is.

That, of course, didn't erase the dangers of hitchhiking, and Waters certainly could have been killed or abducted and forced to be the main character in a reenactment of [insert your favorite deranged John Waters' film scene here], but it does greatly change the perspective of the "truth" of this journey.

Waters may as well have recounted the same complaints about bad motel lighting and surly desk clerks, and told of us his first trip ever to a Wal-Mart by merely hopping in his car and setting off cross country to see what it was like to make the trip by car instead of plane.

Waters' interactions with the people who pick him up are interesting, in some cases heartwarming, but lessened because, for the most part, these people know who he is (and in one instance post accounts to social media which, of course, go viral, because this is, after all, a celebrity hitchhiking).

The best interactions are with the people who don't know Waters. These feel like genuine moments and truly uplift the book from what otherwise starts to feel uncomfortably like the privileged commenting on those not talented, nor fortunate, nor financially secure. It's unfortunate that Waters' editors and/or assistants didn't keep that feeling from leaking (in some cases pouring) into this book.

Another reader responded to this posted question stating that she's always felt Waters stuck up for the underdog. While he does seem to have sympathy for the downtrodden, it begins to seem to come from what I perceive as an insulated point of view. He seems to have grown up in a fairly-well-off family, and now looks to enjoy the spoils of a very lucrative career. But, like Mitt Romney telling us about buying a dress shirt at Costco as though he'd ventured deep into some middle class jungle, Waters' connection to work-a-day America seems detached when he offers such disclosures as not realizing until this cross-country trek that Outback Steakhouse was a chain restaurant or how much was available in Wal-Mart.

This doesn't mean he's uncaring to others. In her late 80's, my godmother, a very sweet person who lived a fairly charmed life in Baltimore just miles from where John Waters grew up, and whose strongest memory of World War II was that it was difficult to find a good gardener, once somehow ended up in a McDonald's, where, after figuring out no one was going to show her to a table, seated herself and proceeded to complain to the friend who'd taken her there that service wasn't very good in this restaurant. To my godmother, the idea of ordering her own food at the counter was completely baffling.

This same detachment from common(er) experiences may make John Waters unique and entertaining, but it does so at the risk of narcissism. This is a fine line to walk, and maybe Carsick is a little too much of that perspective. A magazine article, John Waters Discovers Wal-Mart, might get us in and out of the social commentary quickly enough and with a few good laughs before we begin to wonder if these words aren't being relayed by someone who controls his forays into the morass of everyday experiences with the security of being able to retreat to the sanctity of whichever of his homes is nearest by.

Alice I listened to it and loved it. He is so imaginative and also apparently a very kind, thoughtful man. I felt like I was with him on his journey, like a buddy. I have seen his movies for many years and expected him to be much stranger. He has a wild sense of humor, but he's a decent human being and so appreciative of other people's kindness to him.
As to why other people don't like this book? Water's sense of humor in the imaginary parts gets pretty wild. Some people don't like his movies, either. I've always loved his work because he goes where other people won't, and I've always thought he stuck up for the underdog.
Sylvia Snowe If you like gay porn lit, cheesy gay fantasies, well, you might bother to read the whole thing. A waiter stirring drinks with his tattooed dong. Yeah, that's in there. If you like reading stuff like that, fantasizing about it, well, it's for you. Some of us have other preferences.
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