I was appropriately shocked when I first saw John Water’s film Pink Flamingos at a midnight screening in Berkeley sometime in the 1980’s. I was with my girlfriend, and I recall wanting to walk out during a scene when Divine gives a blow job to her son, Crackers. Funny how that was that part of the movie that made me so uncomfortable. It wasn’t the part where a chicken was crushed to death between two people having sex. It want’t the famous “singing asshole” scene. I wasn’t even that freaked out when Divine ate a pile of dog shit. It was the blow job. That was just too much.
Since then, John Waters has become something of a hero to me. I’ve seen all of his movies, read most of his books, and have attended his live stage show This Filthy World. He makes me laugh with his sardonic perspective on American culture, and I love how he challenges mainstream moral values and aesthetic sensibilities in his own peculiar, good natured way. I think what I appreciate most about Waters, however, is what I perceive as his weird and charming detachment from the twisted world that he inhabits. While associating with criminals and junkies, strippers and prostitutes, Waters has always seemed to me to stand above and apart from the decadence. I see him as a spectator who, while being lovingly fascinated by filth, perversion and obscenity, does not really take part in it himself. Though he lives, works and plays shoulder-to-shoulder with dangerous outsiders, I never had the impression that Waters himself was at all dangerous or threatening. In this way, perhaps I have tended to see something of myself reflected in him; someone who lives in this freakish world but is not of it.
This feeling was somewhat sabotaged for me when I recently read John Water’s Carsick. I found a remaindered copy at our local anarchist bookshop and eagerly dived into it, expecting to really like the book. While there is a lot of funny material in it, there is also much of Carsick that struck me as slapdash and at points even tediously annoying. With apologies to my hero, let me explain.
Carsick is divided into three sections. Part one, “The Best That Could Happen,” is the author’s fantasy about his imagined, best possible hitchhiking experience. Part two, “The Worst That Could Happen,” imagines the worst possible scenario. These first two sections are fictional while only the last section tells John Waters’ actual, real-life experience hitchhiking across the country.
My favorite episode appears at the end of part one when Waters imagines developing a temporarily magic asshole after being anally raped by aliens. His enchanted farts allow him to levitate, inflate flat tires, and bring Connie Francis out of an Alzheimer’s-like stupor! When Waters himself is magically farted on by his ride, Johnny Davenport, he grows a full head of hair. This all made me laugh out loud.
Perhaps the most touching chapter in part one has John Waters picturing himself being picked up by Edith Massey, who in real life died in 1984. He cries in joy when he discovers that she faked her own death to escape show biz and is now 94 years old “and still kickin'” (p. 48). Now running a second-hand pharmacy outside of St. Louis, Edith leads a quiet, happy life with her cat. Edith and John get a final chance to tell one another “I love you,” before Waters continues on his hitchhiking journey. I found this chapter to be very sweet, giving me the John Waters that I really like; a sensitive guy who loves his weird, freakish friends.
Many other episodes in the first part of the book left me with uncomfortable feelings. Waters writes a lot about his own sexual fantasies, which involve him giving a hand job to an outlaw demolition derby driver and getting all lustful over a bank robber who has a perpetual hard-on. It’s not that this material offended me, but it did violate my image of Waters as the detached, ironic observer. Instead of poking fun at the filthy decadence around him, in these parts Waters reveals a bit too much of his own lustful desires. It’s not that I am so naive as to believe that he doesn’t have lustful feelings, it’s just that by expressing them in the first person, my image of him as a gentle, harmless onlooker was replaced with an uneasy sense that he had become an old man on the prowl for younger men.
The second fictional part of the book chronicles Water’s worst imagined hitchhiking experiences, including psychotic fans, an involuntary tattoo, jail time, a goiter, and his death by decapitation, ending with eternal damnation in Hell. In the abstract, part two works better for me than it does in its concrete execution. Here we get all of the author’s worst possible fears, crammed together one after the other, and when I consider it as a whole, it strikes me at once as more funny and more solemn than it seemed when I was actually reading it. The material is absurd, but the ideas that Waters is working with here are quite serious: his own fears and insecurities about aging, his health, his fans, his sexuality and the vulnerabilities of being an old man.
It is interesting that Water’s desires (as expressed in part one) and his fears (as expressed in part two) often seem to be rooted in the same things. For instance, in part one he imagines being recognized by loving fans who take him on various absurd adventures, while in part two he imagines being threateningly pursued by a crazy fan who won’t stop reciting lines from all of his most infamous films. In part one he lustfully imagines gay encounters with some of the men who give him rides, while in part two, he fearfully imagines being picked up by a psychotically anti-heterosexual gay man named Blossom who forces him to participate in a crime spree. In part one he imagines being picked up by a police officer who sniffs poppers and loves the movie Hairspray, while in part two he imagines being thrown in jail by abusive police. Water’s desires and fears seem intermingled. He desires the very things that he fears, and he fears the very things that he desires.
The last, non-fictional section of the book is a little over 100 pages long, chronicling Water’s actual, real-life hitchhiking journey from Baltimore to San Francisco. A lot of people have commented on the possibility that the first two sections may have been included in order to beef up what would otherwise have been a very short and, honestly, unexciting travelogue. I don’t know if that is true or not. One thing that does come through, and that continues a consistent thread with the earlier sections, is a focus on Water’s own fears and desires. In this third, real-life section of the book, his fears turn out to be largely empty and his desires are unfulfilled. He is never attacked or abused by anyone he gets a ride with, and although he lusts after some of the people who pick him up, nothing ever comes of it. All of the people that he hitches rides with turn out to be very nice, even though most of them have no idea of who he is. Assuming that he is just an elderly homeless man, all of these people are kind and generous to him. Others, like an indie band on tour, an ex-marine, and a middle-aged couple on vacation with their dog, do recognize him and are thrilled to pick him up. In contrast to the outrageousness of the first two sections of the book, however, nothing all that exciting really happens in this final part. Waters doesn’t even make the effort to explore the towns that he passes through on his adventure. Instead, he stays at chain motels, eats at chain restaurants and goes to the movies once. He is consistently anxious and uncomfortable, more concerned with his lack of expensive hand lotion than he is with meeting American outsiders. During his entire real-life hitchhiking adventure Waters seems more eager to get the journey over with than he is with observing and documenting the underbelly of America. This third section, thus, feels to me like a missed opportunity for the king of filth to explore American culture as it exists along Interstate 70.
The idea of John Waters hitchhiking across America is funnier than what is actually chronicled in this book. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed the fictional parts of this story more than the real-life part. In the first two sections, the absurdity that transpires is more Waters-esque than the mundane, real life journey Waters takes in the last section. I also found myself unsettled to read about Water’s own lustful feelings; especially in the final section when he is wondering (in real life) if he is going to hook up with the men that he gets rides from. I know its normal for people to think these things, but in the case of John Waters, I hate to think of him as an old man on the prowl. I prefer to think of him as a detached observer and admirer of this filthy world.
But I suppose that has more to do with me and my own hang-ups than it has to do with John Waters, who, by the way, still remains one of my heros.