Thursday, July 29, 2010
“Being rich is not about how much money you have or how many homes you own; it’s the freedom to buy any book you want without looking at the price and wondering if you can afford it.”
- John Waters
An apropos quote, considering I bought Waters’ latest book Role Models immediately upon seeing a signed copy at St. Marks Bookshop. Nope, never even looked at the price. I knew no matter what it was, it was worth it.
Role Models acts as a bookend, and in some ways an answer to, Waters’ first book Shock Value. Shock Value (published in 1981) was the work of a hilarious, bratty young man and a manifesto, a call to arms against snooty good taste. Role Models is the work of a still hilarious, yet more refined older man, who has seen bad taste become mainstream, the only taste left in America. Parts of it read like a mea culpa, most noticeably in the chapters about Leslie Van Houten, one of the convicted members of the Manson family, and Shelia Alberta Bowater, aka “Lady Zorro,” a lesbian stripper in one of Baltimore’s sleazier clubs from Waters’ youth. Whereas Shock Value featured an almost gleeful attitude towards the Manson family – a picture of John posing with Tex Watson probably lost him (John, not Tex) more than one movie deal – Role Models’ chapter on Ms. Van Houten is actually an impassioned plea for parole based on the belief that people can change and reform themselves in prison. It’s also a testament to Waters’ friendship with Van Houten, even if Waters’ mother comments when a letter from Leslie is delivered to their house, “Does the Manson Family have to have our address?”
The chapter on Lady Zorro is also heartbreaking because if focuses on the damage she inflicted upon her daughter who, against the odds, has managed to pull her life together and now has a bemused attitude towards her alcoholic and destructive mother. In his early films Waters collected people and ideas that were against the norm, as an enemy of his enemy (middle class manners and hypocrisy) being a friend. But as an older man, Waters seems to recognize the cost it takes to live outside the norms, both to yourself and those around you. He now seems horrified by Lady Zorro’s home life and instead respects her daughter’s quiet dignity.
It’s an attitude I can understand. When I was young, part of what attracted me to a particular group of friends was that they were not “normal.” They were funny, all a little crazy, but had neither a desire nor an ability to fit in. The sentimental inclination is to say that we all formed our own family, but that’s not quite true. It was more like these outcasts formed their own asylum, with each one taking turns being either inmate or social worker. I guess because I am fundamentally middle-class and bourgeois and normal, I assumed that they too would eventually calm down and we’d grown into funny wacky adults together. But that’s not what happened. Some of them died from drugs, some people’s craziness eventually make them impossible to be around, and some of them slipped into desperate lives that are as far from normal as you can get but still function. I remember when I realized “They’re never going to get better. This is who they’re going to be for the rest of their lives.” That sort of melancholy, that surveying of a devastated landscape behind you, came to mind reading Role Models. The lucky ones who live and endure get to remember and talk about those who didn’t.
This makes Roles Models sound like a dreary affair; it is anything but. Waters writes with his customary wit, and his insight into people and the arts still surprise like flash bombs. He’s equally adept at writing about singer Johnny Mathis, artist Cy Twombly, author Jane Bowles and gay pornographers. His article about avant-garde fashion designer Rei Kawakubo didn’t make me want to wear her clothes, but I understand why Waters does: “…I like to wear a blue coat that, if you look really closely, you realize, no, it doesn’t need to be cleaned; those coffee stains are part of the fabric. This way if a drunken fisherman spills a drink on you, you’ve turned him into a fashion designer and he’s none the wiser.”
One final word from Waters, and it’s not a bad one to live by: “I’ve always said true success is figuring our your life and career so you never have to be around jerks.”