Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review: "Role Models", by John Waters

I don't know why I am so surprised that John Waters is as good a writer as he is.

I checked his collection of essays, Role Models (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010; 304 pages) out of the library after someone online recommended it for the essay it contains about Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten. I mentioned reading that essay here previously. I didn't know what to expect, exactly, and found a thoughtful and insightful, if slightly naive, defense of one of the women convicted of killing Leno and Rosemary LaBianca during a two-night murder spree in August 1969. I hadn't expected to read the rest of the book, but after that 46-page introduction to Waters' writing, I wanted more.

As the title suggests, Waters writes here about people he admires for one reason or another, who he considers role models. And those role models run the gamut from singers Johnny Mathis and Little Richard to what Waters calls "outsider pornographers" to fashion designer Rei Kawakuro, also quite the outsider in many ways, to writers - there is a short but thoughtful essay about Tennessee Williams here - and artists, to heroes from his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. Waters also treats us, in the final essay in the collection, to an offbeat description of the cult that he would create.

Along the way, we learn that Waters is a compulsive reader and book collector with, at the time he wrote the essay, a personal library of 8,425 books. Reason enough, as far as I can see, to like the man. He writes about the art he collects in his various homes as his "roommates". On the other hand, there is very little in his essays about his film making here, something that surprises me less now that I've read the book. Waters is a man of wide interests and enthusiasms. not all of them respectable in polite society, something I'm sure he is fine with, but most of them fascinating, if sometimes morbidly so.

I also have to say that I didn't find all the essays equally fascinating, but that had more to do with my level of interest in the subject matter than it did with Waters' writing. For example, I had trouble getting through the essay about Rei Kawakuro, mostly because I have just about zero interest in fashion.

I also feel constrained to warn that this book is not for everybody. Waters says things about religion that would shock and offend a certain segment of the population. His essay about outsider pornographers would offend some and make some others uncomfortable. So would some of the language that appears from time to time.

Still, there are rewards to be had here, reading Role Models. It is obvious that Waters is well-read. Even better, he is expert at drawing on what he has encountered in his reading and applying the knowledge he has gained there to seemingly unrelated situations in relevant ways. In fact, as I read, I kept being reminded of the Natural History essays of Stephen Jay Gould, who was wonderful at pulling together topics that appeared on the surface to have nothing to do with each other, going on tangents that could make the reader wonder what he was going on about, and end up with a universal conclusion in which the disparate elements of a particular essay fit together seamlessly. Here, Waters demonstrates that he can do substantially the same thing with very different subject matter.

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