Carsick is not a book for the easily offended, and it has enough bizarre material in it to possibly get under the skin of the not-so-easily offended as well. If you are familiar with the movies of John Waters, the book’s author, let’s just say that Carsick is much closer to Waters’ older, weirder movies such as Pink Flamingos and Polyester than it is to Hairspray, his best known and tamest movie.
Carsick isn’t easy to categorize, and not just because of Waters’ exploration of the sick part of the book’s title. The basic idea behind Carsick was for Waters to hitchhike from his home in Baltimore all the way across the country to San Francisco. I knew the basic idea going in and was surprised to find out that the book was divided into three sections: a fictionalized section of good hitchhiking rides (or at least good in Waters’ mind), a fictionalized section of bad hitchhiking rides, and finally a section titled “The Real Thing” that documents Waters’ real hitchhiking adventures. I was a little disappointed with the first section of the book but found section two, the fictional bad rides, to be disturbing and entertaining in a good way.
Not surprisingly, Waters’ true account of hitchhiking across the country doesn’t come close to his hitchhiking fantasies in the first two sections. “The Real Thing” is instead an odd little portrait of America. There are a few people who recognize Waters but most of the people who pick him up are just trying to be helpful to someone they imagine is down on his luck. Waters writes about an America that perhaps isn’t as divided as we may think, at least not along Interstate 70, which Waters is on for most of his trip. People want to help out. Some drive farther than they normally would, and most of the police officers he sees don’t give him a hard time. One even gives him a ride and tries to contact an officer in the next county who might be able to take Waters farther. Carsick ends up with the unusual achievement of being both heart-warming and disgusting.