Nothing human is alien to John Waters. As a filmmaker and essayist, Waters has cultivated an image as our amused curator of bad taste, whether it manifests itself in exploitation movies, crime, or sartorial excess. But you couldn’t find a sensibility farther from the snark and irony that rules the culture.
Waters’s singular combination of (sometimes appalled) amusement and open, even loving fascination finds its most sustained and, I’d say, its most moving expression in Role Models, his new collection of essays. A brief appreciation of Tennessee Williams treats the playwright, whose second and third acts never found the acclaim of his first, as a sturdier version of the lyrical wrecks floating through his drama, but one capable of the exuberance that escaped Blanche DuBois or Alma Winemiller. Something like grace settles over Waters’s portraits of the fringe gay pornographers Bobby Garcia and David Hurles, both of whom have lived in or close to poverty, pursuing their obsession of having sex with straight men with the singularity of purpose that the romantic imagination once attributed to artists like the ones in “La Boheme.”
Waters also devotes essays to the denizens of his favorite seedy Baltimore bars, Commes des Garçons designer Rei Kawabuko, and to some of his most beloved companions, the 8,089 books in his personal library. (“Being rich,” Waters writes, is about “the freedom to buy any book you want without looking at the price and wondering if you can afford it.”)
But the most searching essay here is Waters’s portrait of his friend, Leslie van Houten, former Manson family member, convicted of murder for her part in the LaBianca killings. Waters, who has befriended van Houten through correspondence and prison visits, spends the opening parts of the essay excoriating his former “jokey, smart-ass” Manson obsession. Van Houten was paroled for a time and held down a job, and Waters believes it’s time for her to be paroled again. As someone opposed to capital punishment who nonetheless agrees with the case prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi made in his book “Helter Skelter” that the Manson family should have been put to death, I have to say Waters convinced me. It’s a fine piece of moral and legal reasoning. Waters makes the case that the parole board is flouting the evidence presented of van Houten’s rehabilitation while acknowledging that none of that evidence can ever hope to assuage the grief and anger of the LaBianca children, or the families of the other Manson victims. As a piece of writing, it tears you up.
Apart from its consistently engaging voice, both casual and eloquent (Waters has always been a much better writer than a director), what makes Role Models more than just the latest expression of a great American oddball is its appearance at a time when nearly every segment of society (hipsters, meet Tea Partiers) feels justified in dehumanizing anyone they deem as the other. Waters never does that, even to the truly abhorrent. This man who never sought respectability may have become the most affectionate and radical humanist in American letters.