Bookmarks Issue: 
John Waters

A-Role ModelsAmerican filmmaker, actor, artist, and writer John Waters remains best known for his cult films, such as Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, and Cecil B. Demented. He has also published previous autobiographical books, including Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste (1981) and Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters (1986).

The Topic: In this collection of 10 essays, the man William S. Burroughs once described as "the pope of trash" reflects on figures he has admired throughout his life--the good, the bad, the ugly, and the flawed and deranged. Johnny Mathis is "so perfect"--and the exact opposite of Waters. Waters praises fashion designer Rei Kawakubo for her frayed, stained clothing; obsesses over Patty McCormick; and lauds Little Richard, pornographer Bobby Garcia, a lesbian stripper named Lady Zorro, and writers Denton Welch and Lionel Shriver. He also unabashedly describes his friendship with Leslie Van Houten, an ex-Charles Manson groupie and murderer--and fantasizes about becoming a cult leader himself. Each figure serves as a springboard for deeper reflection about the course of his own life.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780374251475

Onion AV Club 4 of 5 Stars
"Fashioning the piece [‘Leslie’] as an argument for Van Houten’s parole, Waters doesn’t overlook the grim details of her crimes, but he makes a compelling argument for believing that people can be reshaped by time, education, and repentance. The rest of Role Models is considerably less somber, but the best chapters have their share of darkness." Keith Phipps

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"He has the ability to show humanity at its most ridiculous and make that funny rather than repellent. To quote his linear ancestor W.C. Fields: It’s a gift." Jonathan Yardley

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s a testament to Waters’s charm that you find yourself wondering whether you should give the Chipmunks another listen. ... More troubling is Waters’s advocacy for the release of Leslie Van Houten of the Manson ‘family,’ who participated in a 1969 double murder at age 19. She seems repentant and lives a quiet life in prison." Amanda Katz

Kansas City Star 3.5 of 5 Stars
"John Waters has matured into a thoughtful, often astute essayist. ... And though some of his subjects have found themselves in financial ruin and chemically dependent at the end of their lives, he doesn’t pronounce judgment on where their decisions have taken them. In Waters’ world, authenticity is sometimes more important than a fully funded 401(k)." Derek Donovan

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The nostalgia that, with dwindling cinematic returns, infused Waters’s movies from Hairspray on turns engagingly unabashed in Role Models, the latest and best of his cobbled-together exercises in autobiography at one remove. ... Waters can’t help revealing on every other page that he’s both sentimental and good-hearted." Tom Carson

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Under the guise of conducting assorted acts of journalism, Waters embarks on what amounts to a self-portrait of the artist as a no longer young but still vital man (he’s 64). More collage than coherent autobiography, the book takes free association and spontaneous asides as its organizing principles." Steven Winn

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Role Models is charming and chatty; if it falters in places, it also reveals the making of a unique American artist through his influences. When he calls for people to make him a cult leader of filth--having left trash behind for becoming too acceptable--it’s hard for any outsider not to want to follow along." Carolyn Kellogg

Critical Summary

"As familiar as Waters’ obsessions have become over the years," writes the Onion AV Club, "he remains an affable, enthusiastic tour guide to the sort of beauty found only at the edges of good taste." Such beauty includes the profane, the violent, and the shocking, but it’s par for the course for this once transgressive filmmaker and his insightful, obnoxious, and entertaining essays. Only the essay "Leslie," about Waters’s friendship with Manson follower Leslie Van Houten, serving a life sentence for murder, raised debate. A few reviewers found the essay reflective, while others condemned Waters for dodging "the murky moral issues of her story" (Los Angeles Times). Role Models isn’t for everyone--but even "dilettantes at liberty to skip around will find a lot to charm them" (New York Times Book Review).