Coming off two solid hits, True Blue and Like a Prayer, Madonna released Erotica which, while one of her most musically ambitious and artistically successful albums, underperformed in sales. The supplementary book, Sex, over-performed with huge sales and lots of critical disdain. Madonna's exploration of fetish, nudity and the taboo was somewhat shocking way back in 1992 but sex sells and Sex sold. And Madonna had a long career of diminishing artistic returns ahead of her.
In 1998, John Waters entered the mainstream with Hairspray and when the musical version became an even huger hit in 2002, his career seemed about to enter a new phase. So, Waters reverted to his glory, or inglorious, years, and created the film A Dirty Shame that explored fetishes, nudity and taboos in a gently, as opposed to blatantly, satirical fashion. By then, 2004, very little remained that was shocking and any fetish imaginable, and Waters has not only an encycolpedic knowledge but also a fertile imagination, could be easily found on the internet and generally had an advocacy group agitating to be added to the already unwieldy moniker LGBTQetc.
A Dirty Shame was - despite an extraordinarily fearless and affecting performance by lead actress Tracey Ullman - underwhelming to Waters' hard core fans who, fondly recalling Divine's dog shit-eating days, were not titillated by run of the mill sex addicts or infantilism, bear lovers and turds left to float in toilet tanks. A Dirty Shame did get a knuckle rapping by the MPAA who gave a NC-17 rating to a film that covers the same ground as a typical Grisham-era CSI episode but at the time it actually managed to horrify many.A Dirty Shame underperformed at the box office and Waters has yet to find financing to make another film.
A decade later Madonna is still in the business of being Madonna and Waters has turned himself into a brand as well. Fortunately Madonna has yet to produce another book but Waters has written several, all entertaining. And his latest, Carsick, is way more fun than Sex.
Waters' sold the book's premise as a documentation of a hitchhiking expedition from his home in Baltimore to his apartment in San Francisco. Given Waters' droll observations and keen eye for the American absurd this would probably have produced an entertaining book. However Waters' seems to have a decade's worth of unfulfilled film premises built up in his twisted mind and thusCarsick is structured as two speculative novellas - The Best That Could Happen and The Worst That Could Happen - followed by a documentation of the actual events, The Real Thing.
The novellas allow Waters free rein to fantasize and expound on just about any subject or scenario he cares to explore. At times it works wonderfully: The Hipster Carnival where Waters strips naked as the sideshow act "The Man with No Tattoos" is vivid and hilarious; Bernice the book club lady who specializes in bringing her customers "the lowest of the low in literature" allows him to indulge his love for the lurid in the arts; a crime spree with a proponent of gay shame is political commentary at its most incisive and scatalogical; and the truck stop sexual fantasia that is Gas and Go-Go is a delirious and delightful creation begging to be splashed across a big screen or turned into a gay porn mini-series. Carsick is less successful when it detours into sci-fi with alien probes creating magical farts, critiques of fast food diners, and musings on personal vanity, but the mis-steps are few. It is a dense book teeming with outrageous ideas and if one segment doesn't grab, there is another along in a few pages that will.
Waters takes some time to work out some guilt - or at least confusion - about his fascination and past dalliances with serial killers and those sections create a dark tension of comical Kafkaesque proportions. And we actually get a peek into Waters' own peccadilloes. Some of the best, and most compelling, writing in Carsick is when Waters indulges his sexual fantasies. In the past Waters has been somewhat coy and almost giggly about actual sex, using a prurient fascination with kinks as a distancing device from actual desires. To have him write about the glories of a demolition derby driver's erection or a touching interlude with a trucker is refreshing and pornographically romantic, warming the heart and the loins. The unleashed lust climaxes in Carsick's finale with a true happy ending, of the rom-com not porn kind, when The Corvette Kid settles into Waters' San Francisco apartment and the book fades to black.
In hindsight, love and romance - however bent or perverse - have always featured prominently in Waters' oeuvre. Throughout Carsick, Waters is repetitively startled by the genuine kindness of the common people, and seems puzzled by the high esteem in which couples hold their partners. For all the taboos that are flaunted in Carsick, love is the one that Waters finds deliciously shocking and unable to mock or joke at. Glory holes can be played for laughs and prissy horror, but the glory of marital bliss seems sacrosanct.
Carsick is also a meditation on celebrity with Waters being alternately delighted and appalled when he is recognized. And alternately delighted and appalled when he isn't recognized. He is horrified by the advantages that celebrity brings but also eager to avail himself of the perks it provides. He does have the decency to feel guilt and to mock his position of privilege, but is also quite happy to be mistaken for Don Knotts or even, horrors, Steve Buscemi, if it is to his potential gain. Many of Waters' celebrity obsessions make appearances including the iconic Edith Massey back from the dead, Connie Francis, Gertrude Baniszewski and, most intriguingly Johnny Davenport. The ode to Johnny Davenport is a gorgeous piece of prose that honours a porn legend with grace and style - that it then devolves into a silly smutty adventure is just part of the Carsick road trip, you never know what is around the next bend in the road.
It would be great if Carsick would inspire someone, as Waters frequently fantasizes to great length, to finance another Waters' film. His campy bad taste and comic riffing on filth and fantasy are badly missed in a world of blandness and CGI. And, in his grand tradition of taking non-actors and turning them into credible thespians or at least Warholian stars, Madonna would be perfectly cast as either Sarah Finlayson the minister's wife or Bristol the castrating, tapeworm-infested, dodgy doggy underground terrorist. Or whichever of the roles is left once Tracey Ullman makes her choice.
Carsick is available at Glad Day Bookshop, 598 Yonge St.