Even singular characters like filmmaker John Waters don’t come out of nowhere. Dedicated to the people who’ve inspired him, Waters’ book Role Models offers appreciations of his heroes both famous (Tennessee Williams and Little Richard) and obscure: One chapter recalls and catches up with a catalog of Baltimore weirdoes who roamed the streets and dive bars during Waters’ formative years. As such, it doesn’t depart much from what he’s written before. In his previous books, Shock Value and Crackpot, Waters interviewed boundary-pushing B-movie filmmakers like Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis, and detailed the seedier corners of his Baltimore hometown. Yet as familiar as Waters’ obsessions have become over the years, he remains an affable, enthusiastic tour guide to the sort of beauty found only at the edges of good taste. He’s also grown more thoughtful over the years, and a reflective tone adds unexpected depth to the book’s best chapters.
Among them is “Leslie,” an essay about Waters’ decades-long friendship with Leslie Van Houten, a woman serving a life sentence for her involvement in the murders of the LaBianca family under Charles Manson’s influence. Waters sounds faintly embarrassed by his past glibness toward crime, and he seems to better understand why he and his filmmaking band of outsiders identified so closely with the Manson family. But the image he creates of Van Houten—a woman repulsed by her past actions—highlights the piece and provides insight to the way the penal system’s ostensible role in reforming criminal behavior sometimes gets sidelined. Fashioning the piece 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. Though he’s now cuddly enough for mainstream audiences—having scored a Broadway hit with Hairspray—Waters excels at talking to, and writing about, outsiders. In “Baltimore Heroes,” he chats with the daughter of “Lady Zorro,” a lesbian stripper with a bad attitude who became a fixture of Baltimore’s red-light district in the 1960s. He discovers a tale of bad parenting behind the confrontational behavior he admired as a young man, and a remarkably resilient woman who survived it with her affection for her negligent mother intact. “Outsider Porn” finds Waters tracking down some veteran gay pornographers whose work treaded the line between avant-garde art projects and filmed death wishes, discovering lives that paid the cost for fleeting moments of cinematic pleasure. A closing piece on a proposed Waters-led cult doesn’t entirely work, and “Bookworm” does little but string together appreciations for books Waters enjoys, but both feature the same precise, clever prose that highlights all his essays. He may have given up trying to shock an ever-harder-to-shock public, but Role Models again proves Waters always had more than outrage to offer.