Thumbing Things Up

Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America BY John Waters. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 336 pages. $26.

The cover of Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America

The stunt book is a great American genre. For reasons of capitalism and lack of imagination, however, the stunt-writing industry took a sad tumble a while back, just about 118 years after Nellie Bly set out to travel around the world in under eighty days. Picture it: The year was 2007, and A. J. Jacobs published The Year of Living Biblically, while Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man, began living eco-consciously (though his book wasn’t published until 2009, by which time the planet had already failed to be saved). “The whole ‘Set Time Period During Which I Tried To Make Myself A More Interesting Or More Debilitated Person’ thing is over, or should be,” wrote Emily Gould at Gawker in 2007. It was all downhill, if you can believe it, after Julie and Julia in 2005, the lazier and/or poorer woman’s Eat, Pray, Love.

Once, great memoirists had to engineer things so that they were sent to Reading Gaol or the Spanish Civil War or some horrid labor camp. Now, we have Alain de Botton spending a week in Heathrow. And Do-Over!, which was former Iowa Writers’ Workshop nonfiction honcho Robin Hemley redoing his childhood, from kindergarten to prom. There was Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk and 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust. (“After a year, you’d think that he could learn how to do this and relate the results to the reader. No dice,” wrote an exasperated Amazon reviewer. But, but—he grew his own wheat!) There was 2008’s 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy, and there was 2009’s Just Do It: How One Couple Turned Off the TV and Turned On Their Sex Lives for 101 Days (No Excuses!). The subtitles were getting longer as the stunts were getting ever more wee. But what a victory, to literally fuck your way to a memoir!

John Waters is something of a living stunt, in the best possible way. A hero of both America and Americana, Waters has changed the culture of the country as much as any other living filmmaker—Errol Morris, Wes Anderson, or Paul Verhoeven. Having written a couple of memoirs, he now turns his gaze more strictly on himself in a strange stunt book, Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26). After life-stuntist extraordinaire Bill Clegg sold Waters’s idea to FSG head Jonathan Galassi in a bookish velvet-mafia inside job, it took, according to the acknowledgments, two and a half years for Waters “to write and live this adventure.”

The stunt was that Waters, who is now sixty-eight, would hitchhike from his primary home in Baltimore to his San Francisco residence. On May 14, 2012, he set out on that expedition. In the end, he arrived. We learn that he is far too cranky and fussy to be doing such things!

In one way, though, Waters tears a mannequin of the stunt genre apart and spits in its face. The actual hitchhiking takes up less than the second half of the book. The first 192 pages consist of two fictional accounts: first his best-case scenario, followed by his worst-case one. These are unimpeachably lewd and Watersian (and, of course, far more entertaining than the actual dreary hitchhiking odyssey). Womb raiders, escaped convicts with priapism, a stripper who shoots up Viagra in a room of truckers gone wild, an alien abduction, and rape—oh, sure, that’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case presentation involves way more pus and goiters. ¯\_(ツ)_

Most hauntingly, though, his best-case reverie begins with a friendly drug dealer giving him $5 million to, at last, make another film. Waters has not released a movie in ten years; by way of comparison, his first five films came out in a span of eight years. His last, A Dirty Shame, was rated NC-17, and played in 133 theaters. Still, it’s the thirteenth-highest-grossing film in its rating class! That no one will give John Waters the money to make Fruitcake, his holiday film about a kid named Fruitcake who runs away from a family of meat thieves, is terrible.

But then I think: If I had $5 million, would I give it to John Waters? No way—I’d give it to the poor. Kidding! I’d spend it on a Brooklyn town house, just like everyone else. But . . . would I give him $5 million if I had $25 million? Eh. I’d probably just buy a second town house instead. Capitalism!

It’s fine, though; cranky and fussy though he may be, John Waters is far from hurting. He not only has his fine-art career and endless speaking engagements, he also at last has the hearts and minds of Middle America, we can safely infer, based on how many people recognize him on his hitchhiking travels. Still, it seems like we should pamper our few truly noble legends and heroes, not send them out to thumb it at the side of the road.

Choire Sicha is the author of Very Recent History (Harper, 2013).