In this self-regarding collection of personal essays, filmmaker John Waters, who’s responsible for the equally provocative and repulsive “Pink Flamingos” and “Cry Baby,” among others, hails his mostly unorthodox role models. Among them are Leslie Van Houten, the incarcerated former Charles Manson follower and murderer, a lesbian stripper named Miss Zorro, and fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, whose line of clothing, Comme des Garçons, has been called “unwearable,” and “hopeless.” As a writer and director whose films are often watched for the opportunity to be grossed out, (in an infamous scene in “Pink Flamingos,” the lead character actually consumes dog shit), John Waters’s choice of idols is not surprising. What is surprising is his choice of a few mainstream role models, and why—Johnny Mathis because he’s popular and “un-ironic,” Tennessee Williams because of his class, Little Richard because of his voice and hairstyle.
Waters’s essays are predictably very entertaining. His stories of his encounters in Baltimore’s seediest strip clubs and dive bars are hilarious, if only because they’re so bizarre. In a bar named Atlantis, Waters warns a friend, “sometimes you get tea-bagged by the naked dancers if you sit too close.” One of his favorite dancers at a strip club named Boots is a woman he calls “Moose,” and appropriately so. Most of Waters’s stories are so ridiculous it wouldn’t be incongruous to doubt their accuracy, but his voice is so lighthearted and honest that questioning his tales is unnecessary.
In his essay about Leslie Van Houten, Waters’ itinerary abruptly changes from making you laugh to pleading for justice. Van Houten is the longest-incarcerated ex-follower of Charles Manson, and Waters occupies nearly fifty of his 300 pages making a passionate petition for her release. He tells of their friendship-by-letters, and later, by prison visits, and manages to make Van Houten, who was convicted for stabbing a pregnant woman in the back twenty-six times, seem angelic. I’m not quite convinced, and I predict most won’t be, but urgency brings out the best prose from this very talented writer.
However, it’s clear that Waters’s favorite person, and the true subject of “Role Models,” is himself. He takes every opportunity to lavish and accept his own praise, sometimes for the sake of a laugh, but often simply to point out to the reader what he loves about himself. But let’s face it—John Waters is terribly intriguing. Whether he’s discussing his infamous moustache (the secret’s in a Maybelline black eyeliner pencil), or dropping in a quick mention of how he’s spent more than one New Year’s Eve at Valentino’s chalet in Gstaad, I want to hear more about it. (Naomi Huffman)
By John Waters
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 294 pages, $25