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Originally published Sunday, July 20, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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‘Carsick’: John Waters hitchhikes across America

In “Carsick,” director and counterculture hero John Waters hitchhikes across America and discovers that he can depend on the kindness of strangers, even in flyover country.


Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes across America’

by John Waters

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 322 pp., $26

If America has finally come to accept, if not fully embrace, huge swaths of its outlier population, we owe thanks to director John Waters, whose disarmingly funny films, from “Polyester” to “Hairspray” to “Pink Flamingos,” flipped our stereotypes on their sides and replaced them with real humans, albeit, in lead “actress” Divine’s case, with a little more mascara than we might have applied.

In “Carsick,” Waters has taken his famously bent perspective on the road to hitchhike, at age 66 (!) from his Baltimore house to his San Francisco co-op apartment. “Nice knowing you,” one friend laughs when he hears the plan. But — spoiler alert! — Waters succeeds.

But first he pens two fictional journeys here: one comprising 13 “good rides,” and the other 13 “bad rides.” First among good rides is an encounter with pot growers Harris and Laura, who naturally insist on giving Waters millions in cash, on the spot, to fund his next film. “But don’t change a thing in the script if you don’t want to,” Harris says jovially. The good rides that follow celebrate the joys of Waters’ life, from demolition derbies to Jujyfruits to Connie Francis (”V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N, in the summer sun”)

In Waters’ “bad rides,” the author skewers belief systems that are taken a little too seriously, like health-food fanaticism — “Cooking is a violation of the natural order of food,” one driver, Eugene, proclaims. This journey ends in the fires of hell (“hotter than Baltimore in August” ), where “It’s a Wonderful Life” plays on movie screens everywhere. “I watch it for eternity,” Waters writes.

As inventive as both of these scenarios might be, they probably would translate far better to the silver screen than they do on the page. So it’s hard not to count pages ahead to Waters’ account of his actual journey.

And for that journey, he is grounded, from his provisions to his clothes to his GPS device (so that his staff can track him) to the hand-signed “PS: Thanks for the lift” business card he gives each driver at the end of his ride. Waters is still a celebrity, after all. And celebrity helps, as a number of fans recognize him and go out of their way to assist. But it doesn’t always, as he spends endless hours vainly waiting at interstate-highway onramps.

But, rain or shine, Waters maintains his signature humor throughout, such as two signs he creates: “MIDLIFE CRISIS” and “I’M NOT PSYCHO.” He pokes even more fun at himself when he grabs a cardboard box to fashion some replacement signs: “Ow! I scrape my hand on a staple and now I’m bleeding. Once again, I wonder why I can’t do the simple physical things that other men can do easily. Am I that gay?”

In the end, what Waters discovers disarms even himself: heterosexual men who love their wives (“I’m telling you, it’s a trend!”), strangers as slyly funny as he is (“Come on vacation, leave on probation!” one man says of Kansas), and the drivers who dared pick him up: “If I ever hear another elitist jerk use the term flyover people, I’ll punch him in the mouth. My [drivers] were brave and open-minded, and their down-to-earth kindness gave me new faith in how decent Americans can be. They are the only heroes in this book.”

Maybe not the only heroes.



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