Role models, heroes, icons, figures of inspiration. Quite a hefty pedestal for anyone to be put on, I'm sure you'll agree.
So what motley crew could have inspired the director who has filmed a six foot drag queen (famously known as Divine) having rosary beads shoved up his arse while the stations of the cross are played out, artificial insemination, penectomy and acid attacks? All before gaining mainstream acceptance and having Tony award winning musicals.
That's John Waters for you. Cult filmmaker extraordinaire, his films (like 'Multiple Maniacs', 'Pink Flamingos', 'Desperate Living') work on so many levels while appearing, on the surface, to be juvenile attempts at shock value. Critiques of conservative America, Yippie style political stunts and a genuine love of both arthouse and grindhouse movies, his films can be endlessly rewatched.
Waters is a proper renaissance man: a published writer as well as a figure in contemporary art, he remains grounded in filth but aims for dizzying heights.
As you can imagine, his heroes are quite a collection. From the clean cut (Johnny Mathis) to the literary (Tennessee Williams) to the fashionista (Rei Kawakubo) to the insane (Saint Catherine of Siena), their one connection is that they have all (in the view of Waters) led extreme lives. So, collected in one book, this should make for a read that touches upon every emotion possible.
And it does, but not in the way that you'd expect.
No denying it, Waters is a skilled storyteller. He endlessly wanders off topic throughout the sections without ever losing the reader (which is a feat very few achieve) and his worldview is one that is both invigorating and surrealistic (he remarks that it doesn't bother him that Nancy Regan and Johnny Mathis visit each other as him and Patricia Hearst are friends, isn't that the same thing after all). Plus his encounters with Little Richard (the first person to scare black and white people, according to him) and the Baltimore figure who remarked that his job consisted of trading deer meat for crack, will make you ask the same questions that film critic Rex Reed asked: "where do these people come from? Where do they go when the sun goes down? Isn't there a law or something?"
On the downside, the decision to place the chapter concerning Leslie Van Houten (a member of the Manson Family serving life for the LaBianca murders) so early on is quite a shift in tone and is a heavy burden. Considering the first two chapters had been filled with typical Waters wit, the sudden shift to such a solemn topic kind of punctures the momentum.
As well as that, Waters tries to grapple with the bigger topics of Manson (death of the 60's, suitability of punishment, genuine remorse) but can't quite grasp them due to the sheer enormity of them. Understandable, as many authors struggle with such topics, but maybe it's a chapter best left to towards the end to balance out the other characters.
The same thing happens when he discusses Zorro, a stripper from his home town of Baltimore. Describing her as looking like Johnny Cash, he writes about how her fearlessness would inspire him at a young age (apparently, she wandered onstage naked and proceeded to howl "what the fuck are you looking at" to the audience). All very funny. But, when her daughter talks about her upbringing, it's quite the opposite. Stark and depressing. Yet, throughout, Waters remarks how remarkable it would have been to have her as a parent. And he doesn't gloss over any of her negative behaviour. You get the feeling Waters is clinging onto his initial impression and is never quite able to reconcile the two contrasts.
A bit like his encounter with Little Richard.
Ultimately, despite it being an uneven, unsettling ride, you get a glimpse at the surrealistic aspects of American life that many like to discuss but few do with such wit and detail. These people are genuine outsiders, and I suspect John Waters wouldn't have them any other way.
John Waters, 2014, Role Models. Corsair ISBN-13: 978-1472116154
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.