Authors: Lynne Tillman
The hard-boiled McCoy, if he was—we can’t know the real McCoy—might have appreciated his oblivion. Cynicism and despair suffuse his novels, and a sad literary fate might have satisfied his pessimism. In its darkness the hard-boiled school previewed film noir; in its cool toughness it rehearsed the next war and constructed future Cold Warriors. McCoy’s writing is also self-conscious and reflexive—modernist—showing the influences of Hemingway and even Stein. His lean, taut style serves the genre, but what’s interesting about his novels is their mix of literary forms. His work is not easy to categorize.
I Should Have Stayed Home
appeared in 1938. Hitler was threatening Europe, and the U.S. was slowly moving out of the depression,
from isolationism toward war. This is the novel’s time; its location, Hollywood—the Hollywood of extras. McCoy’s truly marginal characters are drawn there by the movie world’s promise of fame and fortune, not unlike Steinbeck’s Okies in
Of Mice and Men
, who also went West hoping for salvation.
Ambitious antihero Ralph Carston wants it all, but his conscience and idealism stand in the way. Roommate Mona is much more stalwart. The novel begins with her and their mutual friend, Dorothy, going to jail; Dorothy for shoplifting. Mona for objecting loudly, in court, to Dorothy’s sentence. Mona’s disappearance into jail sets Ralph adrift, and he descends into the abyss: “Feeling the way I did, alone and friendless, with the future very black, I didn’t want to get out on the streets and see what the sun had to show me, a cheap town filled with cheap stores and cheap people, like the town I had left, identically like any one of ten thousand other small towns in the country—not my Hollywood, not the Hollywood you read about.”
Temptation enters Ralph the extra’s life in the guise of an older woman. Mrs. Smithers is “filthy” rich with all the best movie connections. Embellishing this filthiness is how she takes her pleasure—she loves getting slapped around by gigolos. McCoy uses the novel’s filmic context by having Mrs. Smithers seduce Ralph with pornographic home movies. Ralph succumbs, not quickly, not completely, and not, finally, successfully—he doesn’t get a part but he also doesn’t ever give up. And throughout the novel, Mona, as chorus or superego, warns him against Mrs. Smithers and himself; the two extras’ dialogues construct a kind of argument about how far and how much are okay in the pursuit of success.
Relatively plotless, though replete with the genre’s dark mayhem—suicide, court scenes, jail for Ralph—the story is primarily a journey, Ralph’s making his way, or not making it, in the world. In this
, the hero’s struggle is not with God and the devil but with the secular world. McCoy uses Hollywood as the paradigm, the apotheosis, of capitalist society at a time when the myth of Horatio Alger was becoming a maudlin and corroded irony.
Ralph’s battle with his own corruption and loss of principle is key to McCoy’s work generally. His protagonists fight the good fight. In
I Should Have Stayed Home
, Mona refuses to be interviewed by fan magazines and rails against them for creating false and insatiable longings. A friend of Mona’s, Johnny Hill, who does publicity for a studio, quits his job because a German consul was able to have censored a part of a movie in which “German youngsters [are] drilled as soldiers.”
Then, in the reflexive mode, Johnny announces to Mona and Ralph that he’s going to write a novel about Hollywood’s extras—“the true story of this town concerns people like you—a girl like you and a boy like him. Maybe I’ll put you two in a book . . . Understand I don’t think I’ve got any special talent for novel writing.” Ralph-in-Hollywood is McCoy’s meditation on desire and failure. Through failure may now be the unspeakable of our society, in the midst of the Depression it was an existential fact of life. McCoy’s Hollywood is the nightmare machine that produces phonies, monsters and wasted youth, sadness and sadism. He sees failure embedded within the system; there will always be people who don’t make it.
McCoy’s version of cultural politics is, like the country he’s from, contradictory. There’s some “conventional” racism, homophobia and misogyny side by side with sympathy for the underdog and hope for a nationwide new deal. Contemporary “conventional” attitudes are as questionable but more difficult to isolate from the narratives—ideologies—that we live. It seems easier to spot offensive or questionable ideas in work from earlier periods, in part because language and style change. Concepts such as “underdog” and “phony” may seem dated in today’s parlance and in our nation, as presidents wrap themselves in symbols and commit highly unsymbolic HUD and S&L frauds. And get away with it. It’s banal now even to say that corruption is endemic when many are positioned as permanent underdogs, the underclass.
Reading the out-of-print McCoy returns one to the not-so-distant past and to another consciousness. McCoy’s sometimes uncomfortable speeches, prejudices and “old-fashioned” language bespeak the U.S.’s disturbed history, its citizens’ noble and ignoble values. His writing style itself speaks a very American language, presaging the Beats; long flowing sentences and a moody lyricism alternate with terse, plain speech. Like other American writers from the Transcendentalists on, McCoy eulogizes a disappearing America, its hometowns and daily life transformed by powerful economic and social forces. Hard-boiled despair is personal, political and unpopular. But given our economy, McCoy’s lessons on living with failure might come in handy.
Guide for the Misbegotten
In his novella
, Thomas Mann writes, “Only a beginner believes those who create feel.” Kroger is a young middle-class German who considers himself manqué both as a bourgeois and as an artist. John Waters might be the anti-Kröger—a well-off, middle-class man whose life and art mock high, low, middle and all their fuzzy gradations. He’s an aesthete and an anti-aesthete; he’s classy and classless. Filmmaker, artist, writer, actor, Waters revels in spectacle and spectatorship; and the joys of making, being and observing fill the pages of
, his 2010 collection of essays. In Mann’s terms, Waters might be that rare creature: An artist who feels.
Early in his career, Waters became known for films depicting bizarre characters in outrageous, super-melodramatic situations, as in
(1977), a gay/lesbian/cross-dressing murder fantasy set in Mortville, a circuslike shantytown. Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque nicely fits these films. A contemporary Lewis Carroll, Waters luxuriates in the topsy-turviness of life, and his somewhat more conventional recent films depend, like most narratives, on the reversal of fortune. In
(1998), the eponymous protagonist flees instant New York art-world stardom when his photographs of Baltimore buddies and family subject them to unwanted and unsympathetic attention. What dances on the surface
in this and other Waters films is explicit in
a concern for art, fun, justice and people.
The essays recount actual and imaginary encounters with ordinary but extraordinary people, as well as with celebrities such as Little Richard and 1950s crooner Johnny Mathis. Their stories, intermingled with Waters’ own, comprise a kind of bildungsroman, or even a portrait of the artist as a collage of his influences. Take the chapter on Mathis, which kicks off the book. “I wish I were Johnny Mathis,” Waters confesses. “So mainstream. So popular. So unironic, yet perfect.” None of these qualities characterizes Waters’ own oeuvre; but as he himself asks, “Do we secretly idolize our imagined opposites . . ?” Waters once chanced to see the elusive Mathis but didn’t have the nerve to talk to him, and then felt compelled to interview his undoppelgänger. “[Mathis’s] appeal is broad and wide, something I could never achieve and he can never escape.”
Thinking about the singer, Waters travels down memory lane and unearths other boyhood heroes, like Clarabell, the clown on TV’s
Howdy Doody Show
, played by Bob Keeshan, later Captain Kangaroo. “Imagine his life, his schizophrenia,” Waters writes of Keeshan. “Am I Clarabell? Or Captain Kangaroo?” It was Clarabell whose clownish makeup would inspire Divine—Waters’s apotheosis and star, the drag-queen actor featured in many of his films, first celebrated in
(1972) for eating actual dog shit on a Baltimore street. Au revoir, good taste, Waters sings, and good riddance.
pays homage to Baltimore, Waters’s muse and hometown, whose culture spawned many magnificent oddballs, as well as the bars and barkeeps who nursed his imagination. In
the chapter “Baltimore Heroes,” Waters writes, “The good [bars] have no irony about them. They’re not ‘faux’ anything. They’re real and alarming.” He gravitates toward characters like Esther, a fierce, bad mother with a filthy mouth who slings whiskey and fears nothing, and Lady Zorro, “an angry stripper with a history of physical and sexual abuse with a great body and the face of a man.” Waters reflects: “To this day Zorro is my inspiration. . . . Brave. Without makeup. Like Tilda Swinton at the Oscars.”
Though irony is mother’s milk to him, Waters’s quest for genuine communication inside bullshit-free zones propels him toward worlds with and without irony. Sincerely insincere, insincerely sincere, authentically inauthentic, inauthentically authentic, his work vexes the normative and all the usual binaries. Oppositional terms can’t tell the stories he wants to tell. The mash-up of in-betweenness sparks Waters’s imagination, where insincerity can be sincere, sincerity ironic. Waters prodigiously exaggerates the deficiencies of false dichotomies: Each side of the aisle is desperately wanting. All this ongoing worry about “authenticity” in art and life, his oeuvre suggests, is moot, since human beings may be incapable of inauthenticity. Con artist Bernie Madoff’s commission of fraud doesn’t make Madoff a fraud: He’s absolutely Madoff.
In this vein, Waters prefers second-rate to first—Jayne Mansfield to Marilyn Monroe, “bad” Tennessee Williams to “good” Williams—but he also cherishes Jane Bowles’
Two Serious Ladies
, one of the great American novels of the twentieth century, and the work of Denton Welch and Christina Stead. He’s a big reader, a bookworm. “I’ve jitterbugged with Richard Serra, eaten Thanks-giving
dinner with Lana Turner . . . gone out drinking with Clint Eastwood . . . but what I like best is staying home and reading.”
Waters’s faves cover the map or, to put it differently, map his hybrid values, his “taste.” Taste is now a dirty word; theoretically, it’s near untouchable. Still, everyone has it and displays it, whether or not they think they do. Over and over in his art and these essays, Waters deftly shoves our noses in it. He’s a high-fashion hound whose idol is Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons: “I genuflect to Rei’s destruction of the fashion rules.” He collects art by Moyra Davey, Mike Kelley and Cy Twombly, no outsider artists, and calls their work his “roommates.” But the high-style-and high-art-loving Waters is also a devotee of certain amateur or “outsider porn” moviemakers—without whom, he writes, “I could never have had the nerve to make my movies. . . . Am I a pervert for loving the work of Bobby Garcia and David Hurles? Well, yes, I guess. But a healthy one.”
Waters complicates and flouts the boundaries of taste, but there’s no disingenuousness in his assault on all guises of high-mindedness. “Parents should understand that their young kids are not like them and need to have the privacy to fantasize both their good and bad desires,” he writes. Voilà: the youthful, healthy pervert. He suggests, from his upside-down perch, other alternative moral positions: “Zorro tried in her own misguided way,” he writes of the angry stripper’s mothering, which even psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott might not have found “good enough.” Happily, the word “transgressive” doesn’t dot Waters’s essays. One, calling it so doesn’t make it so; two, transgression happens when you don’t know it; and three, he isn’t merely reactive to society’s
dictates. He does what he likes and embraces his contradictions. So he sports a black Maybelline-pencil mustache and wears Comme des Garçons, but his manner can be as folksy as Will Rogers’s, and like that midwestern stand-up comic, he’s partial to truthfulness, good-natured subversions and self-deprecation. “The DJ . . . honors my presence by playing Eminem’s ‘Puke’ every time I come in the door.”
Waters layers his narratives with fantastic concoctions, but he tells us in the chapter titled “Leslie” that he learned the hard way to discern for himself the fault line between reality, which Timothy Leary once defined as an opinion, and the uses of make-believe in his art. Leslie is Leslie Van Houten, one of the “notorious ‘Manson girls,’” who was nineteen, in 1969, when she participated in the murder of Rosemary LaBianca on the orders of the insane, charismatic cult leader Charles Manson. Van Houten has been in prison since then and is now over sixty. Waters and Van Houten became friends, first because of Waters’ fascination with the Manson cult, but through knowing her—she lives with great remorse for her crimes—he reckons with his own conscience: “I am guilty, too. Guilty of using the Manson murders in a jokey, smart-ass way in my earlier films without the slightest feeling for the victims’ families or the brainwashed Manson killer kids who were also victims in this sad and terrible case.”
Any half-sentient artist or writer will recognize this aesthetic and ethical Maginot Line. What is crossing the line? Whose line is it anyway? Should it be crossed, redrawn—and if so, in what way? Waters doesn’t proscribe behavior or approaches; the reader can infer from his questions and choices that he continually negotiates
art’s ambiguous terrain. There are no rules; there’s self-rule in art, which is its freedom, and a slide rule for one’s mutating sense of good, bad, right, wrong. Inside this collection resides a unique version of art criticism and artistic self-criticism. “Who’s the real extremist,” he asks, “Johnny Mathis or myself?”