Book review

Fiction is funnier than truth as the Bard of Baltimore, John Waters, hits the road

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Don’t you just love John Waters — the enigmatic, sarcastic filmmaker who produced gems such as “Hairspray” and “Pink Flamingos”? You know who else adores John Waters? John Waters. This becomes painfully clear early on in “Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America.”

By John Waters
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($26)

Of course, a little narcissistic self-confidence never hurt anyone in Hollywood. In fact, they don’t let you into the city without it (although most of the time Mr. Waters lives in Baltimore. Go figure).

Mr. Waters decides to hitchhike across the country, from Baltimore to San Francisco, and write about it. But after the publisher bites on the concept, Mr. Waters gets paranoid that the real tale won’t be interesting enough to sell books.

So to be on the safe side, two-thirds of the book is fiction. The first part is Mr. Waters’ fictional ideal hitchhiking experience. The second part is what if everything went to hell in a handbasket fiction. And the third is real. The comparatively mundane aspects of the latter may serve to prove that Mr. Waters’ initial paranoia was justified.

The fictional characters aren’t just larger than life — They’re too freaky to be real. Or maybe they’re not if you’re John Waters. I’ve never really hung out in Baltimore.

Several of the fictional folk are obsessed with sex. “One day I’m gonna tell my children that John Waters looked at my [penis],” proclaims one. Mr. Waters spins the yarn of a travelling band of hipster circus freaks who insist that he perform with them. And so he does, appearing on stage unclothed as “The Man With No Tattoos.”

He doesn’t want to take drugs that the not-real folks offer. Fictional John declines the drug street named “roofies,” because “I’m afraid I’d stay home and date rape myself all night long.”

Not-real John goes to jail for illegal hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere but somehow escapes. It weirded me out a little bit to wonder about the next made-up plot twist when I knew reality would soon rear its ugly, and not as exciting, head.

So let’s get real. When Mr. Waters actually leaves Baltimore, he has plenty of cash and credit cards. He checks in with his assistants back home every night. So unlike a hitchhiker who HAS to thumb it down the road, Mr. Waters can put the kibosh on the whole thing any time he wants, which makes it a little less compelling.

Nonetheless it’s often pretty funny. He hooks up early with a young Republican, the antithesis of Mr. Waters’ political philosophy. They strike up an unlikely friendship, the guy drops him off and appears later farther west to take him down the road some more. Is that cheating? Probably, but Waters more or less owns up to it.

He spends countless hours with his thumb out, making new cardboard signs along the way. (“I am not psycho” was my favorite.) He grumbles about crummy little chain motels, but he always tips the help. At one he left a “five dollar tip for the maid, wondering if such gratuities are even customary at the Days Inn.”

At another he requests a no smoking room, but “the toxic cigarette smoke is so overwhelming in this hotel you’d have to hermetically seal off each room and fumigate for a year before you could even promise such a thing.” Nobody uses the phrase “hermetically seal” except Johnny Carson’s “Carnac the Magnificent” and John Waters.

He does find some gems of middle America along the way. A diner called the Cowpoke Cafe is “decorated like the Long Branch saloon in Gunsmoke.”

Mr. Waters lectures himself over being spooked by other highway folk. Is that woman walking by a hooker? “Why do you have to turn everybody into a tawdry character? I chastise myself.”

I never hitchhiked across the country, but I did thumb it up and down the 300 miles on Interstate 57 in Illinois from Kankakee, near Chicago, to Carbondale, in southern Illinois where I went to school. I can totally identify with the apprehension, the prayers for people who aren’t perverts (although Mr. Waters seems to hope for some hopefully harmless perverts), and the good and bad luck that is inevitable.

I was once picked up and dropped off a few minutes later because my girlfriend was shaking, and the older couple assumed she was on drugs. She was just cold. But empathy aside, Mr. Waters’ book is generally entertaining, yet arguably, he sort of sets himself up to fail, at least a little bit.

As Mr. Waters puts it “reality is never as exciting as fiction.”

John McIntire is a talk show host and comedian whose next show will be at 10:30 p.m. July 26 at the Cabaret at Theater Square.

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