I have always appreciated maverick film director John Waters, his audacity, his obvious love for the home-grown freaks who populate his adored subterranean Baltimore and render the place cinematically as vividly as Joyce's Dublin, William Kennedy's Albany or Wendell Berry's Kentucky. I admittedly haven't felt the need to keep up with his more recent output the past few years, but Pecker and Hairspray were both quite entertaining and deliciously subversive, if in a more subtle manner compared to in-your-face predecessors like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble.
Thus I approached Waters' new book Role Models with something more than idle curiousity, something less than intense interest, when I saw it on the New Arrivals shelf at the library (a place I probably have no business entering in the first place, considering all the still-unread William Kennedy and Wendell Berry novels on my shelves). Even after bringing it home, it had to compete with a couple of more involved reading commitments, my long-overdue cracking of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (125 pages in) and Robin D.G. Kelley's comprehensive biography of Thelonious Monk. So there was more than half an expectation that, like many New Arrival impulse borrowings (thanks to that bewitching enabler, the Public Library), I would skim a few chapters during the three weeks it would belong to me, and then I would return it, marveling at Waters' outrageousness and moving on to the next temptress like the literary Lothario the library encourages me to be (I feel so dirty afterwards, but I can't help myself).
But a funny thing happened. I guess you could say I forged a deep emotional connection with this book, maybe even something approaching "love'? I must confess, I found Role Models a work of great depth and compassion, extremely moving at points, and always entertaining.
Rather surprisingly, the author's identity as John Waters, filmmaker, is subdued. There are passing references to specific movies, but the personae that take center stage are those of John Waters, friend, fan, proud Baltmorean, titillated voyeur and passionate reader and art collector.
The emotional center of the book is the third chapter, which details Waters' years-long friendship with Leslie Van Houten, one of the "Manson Girls" convicted for the Tate/La Bianca murders (surely I don't have to explain further, even in this attention span-challenged age of ours). Anyone familiar with Waters' early work knows of his obsession with Charles Manson and his cult following, an obsession he now admits to "...using... in a joking, smart-ass way in my earlier films without the slightest feeling for the victims' families or the lives of the brainwashed Manson killer kids who were also victims in this sad and terrible case," (p. 45). While acknowledging (and conveying van Houten's acknowledgment of) the inhuman brutality and heinousness of her crimes, Waters makes a compelling case for her rehabilitation, decades removed from Manson's influence. Van Houten comes across as utterly sane and determined to make a meaningful contribution, regardless of her circumstances. Her initial reluctance to engage with Waters is testament to her levelheadedness even in severe isolation, and Waters thoughtfully applauds her resistance of conversion to jailhouse Christianity, with its easy and immediate forgiveness and network of ready-made, media-savvy allies. Waters' empathy and affection are palpable, particularly as he has to weigh his willingness to do all he can for a friend in need against the fear that his notoriety undercuts his effectiveness as her advocate.
Waters' fanboy passions are given full indulgence in profiles of Johnny Mathis and Little Richard, both pieces skillful alloys of journalistic inquiry and personal exploration. Speculation about Mathis' ambiguous sexuality leads to a meditation on the author's obsession with the psychotic child character in The Bad Seed, while the memory of playing his freshly-shoplifted 45 of "Lucille" during a family gathering leads to the profound realization that, "In one magical moment, every fear of my white family had been laid bare: an uninvited, screaming, flamboyant black man was in the living room. Even Dr. Spock hadn't warned them about this, (p. 183).
Finally, the intellectual highlight of the book is Waters' discussion of Cy Twombley's work in the chapter "Roommates," in which he rhapsodizes about his personal art collection. I remember seeing an exhibition of Twombley's work at the Menil in Houston many years back, and loving it. Why I loved it, I would have been hard-pressed to articulate at the time, but there is a minimalist, anti-monumental audacity to his work that is truly exhilarating. Waters, who admits to owning 81 volumes on Twombley's work among his (at the time of writing) 8,245 total books (music to the ears of this guerrilla bookseller), delivers the critical goods in language which expands the reader's understanding of the artwork while creating an individualistic (but decidedly not self-indulgent) and decidedly populist work of art as criticism (think Dave Hickey or Lawrence Wechsler):
"You see, Cy Twombley is, quite simply, better than you and me and has the right to feel superior to all collectors. He should (author's italics) judge us because he makes perfect mistakes and laughs at the concerns of the moneyed class, who deserve the problems of abstraction. For me, his thoroughbred so-called scribbles celebrate an ecstacy that only a dyslexic child prodigy could feel over his secret code words and alternative alphabets. This exclusive, violent, erotic handwriting that may seem illegible to others can (ditto, I mean ibid or something) be read if you just give it a chance," (pp. 246-247).
In slightly less abstract terms, this could serve as an apt description of Waters' work, and this book, as well, as appreciations of Baltimore dive bars and raw "outsider porn" bump up against those of Tennessee Williams and Jane Bowles. There is a great generosity of spirit in these pages, and you should grab hold. You might need to wipe some kind of bodily fluid off of your hand afterward, but it will be worth it. Trust him.