Carsick – A Book Review/Love Note to the Library

I don’t typically do book reviews, but the book I just read is relevant to travel, so why not? My reading habits ebb and flow, but when I get excited about a book it makes me want to read all the time. I just tend to have trouble finding my next book after reading something I love. It seems like something there should be an untranslatable Japanese word for. When I travel I really enjoy taking time off by stringing up the hammock and relaxing to read in a beautiful place.
Before I get into my book review I want to talk about where I got the book itself. The Salt Lake City Library has become one of my favorite places in the city. It’s a beautiful 4-story glass-facade building with with curving walls, a large fountain in the courtyard, and a spiraling stairway jutting out from the main stacks over the atrium. Every detail seems to be well-considered. From the arching benches whose shadows looks like open books in the morning sunlight to the clever bike racks that spell out READ and BIKE. Each visit makes me smile just looking around.
Aside from the architecture the library is fully stocked with tons of great book and resources to boot. The Creative Lab has a 3D Printer, sewing machines, and a soundproof recording booth! I actually recorded my first podcast there (stay tuned for more details on that.) They provide classes and access to all of these wonderful amenities for anyone with or without a library card. They even have an art gallery downstairs featuring local artists, a movie theater with free educational and topical films, and when it’s warm they host sunrise yoga on the roof!
The list certainly goes on, but I will end my gushing there except to comment on the wonderful and helpful staff. I’ve had nothing but good experiences with them, and that leads me to this book. When asking for suggestions on “dark humor” books I picked the right person to ask. While I was directed to several books I had read or at least knew about, the one I knew nothing of was Carsick by John Waters. My bibliophile guide was so excited about her recommendation I felt like I had to give it a shot.
Like many of the fictional and non-fictional characters in his book, I am unfamiliar with the work of John Waters. I have heard of several of the movies he’s made, but otherwise I come in with no prior knowledge of his style. The basis of the book is John Waters, film director and writer, will hitchhike across the US from Baltimore to San Francisco, but first he will write two short stories imagining the best- and worst-case scenarios for this trip.
It took me some time to get into this book, starting with the “Good Ride” novella. I enjoyed his storytelling and sense of humor immediately. His idea of an ideal trip was catching the first car that passed him each time he stuck his thumb out, meeting fans of his work that promise to finance future films for him, and at least a few sexual encounters with men he meets along the way. His bad version of the trip is quite the opposite, finding no help from his fan base but instead finding people who think he is making fun of them with his films. There are terrible drivers, serial killers, and yet he rarely waits for a ride.
Once getting through the fictional rides we finally arrive at the real thing. Much as you’d expect, reality is rarely as good or as bad as the things one might conjure in their mind. To quote the book, “Reality is never as exciting as fiction.” Waters’ real ride is slightly less entertaining than meeting movie stars or killers on the interstate, but it’s not without its surprises. He deals with good and bad fortune along the way, but overall his real trip trends to the very good side. His worst complaints are long waits in the rain or sun (long being several hours) and bad motel breakfasts. This section is where he lost me.
While he never stated explicitly that he wouldn’t exploit his fame for help on this trip I felt it was somewhat implied that to write a book about hitchhiking he might at least try not to flaunt it. What I found in the “Real Ride” section was that he was often pulling out his “fame kit,” which includes his photo and film credits to prove he’s not a vagrant all the time. He used this at least twice to get out of trouble with the police, and more than a few of his rides pass him before turning around because “Is that John Waters?!” This whole thing feels a bit false to me. I guess it’s really my fault for having this expectation going in. It wasn’t billed as a portrait of true hitchhiking but an experiment for John Waters to try hitchhiking across the country. His fictional sections relied heavily on his celebrity for one reason or another so no reason to expect this section not to, I suppose. Even his assistant, Susan, mused in the last lines of the book, “If it was my unknown ass I’d still be hitching in West Virginia.”
My critiques aside, I did really enjoy the book. It was a fun and interesting read from beginning to end. It made me think back to my few experiences with hitchhiking. I’ve been on both sides of it. While section hiking the Appalachian Trail I had to catch a few rides to trailheads and into towns. Everyone I met was extremely friendly and helpful to stinky hikers getting in their car. The area in Virginia around the AT is famous with hikers for trail towns and locals picking them up. The mutual benefits are without question. On the other side of the coin I have picked up several hitchhikers while traveling, mostly in the northwest around the Pacific Crest Trail. Again, I only had good experiences and met some great people.
This has been my overall finding with so many things people consider potentially dangerous or sketchy; couch surfing, traveling alone, talking with strangers. This book made me long for the road and the excitement of not knowing where the next day might take you or who you might meet. I’m not so sure I want to hitchhike across the country, but I do want to pick some people up again. I especially enjoy talking to hikers in the middle of long treks. I’ll be taking several trips over the next few months, and I plan to pick up some hitchers if I see them! I’ll choose wisely, of course.
So go find some adventure, or at least go to the library!

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