Book Review: Mr. Know-It-All

(This review was originally published by the Washington Independent Review of Books on June 28, 2019.)

Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder

By John Waters

All those midnight shows at the Bijou Theatre in Hipsterville USA featuring seedy movies like “Pink Flamingoes,” “Polyester,” “Serial Mom”— full disclosure: I never saw ‘em. And now I feel bad, like I missed that disreputable boat mrknowand a real-time peek under the ratty rug of late-20th-century American culture.

In his new unblinking and sometimes laugh-a-minute collection of essays-cum-memoir, director John Waters laments, “I used to be despised but now I’m asked to give commencement addresses at prestigious colleges…and I even got a medal from the French government for ‘furthering the arts in France’…this cockeyed maturity is driving me crazy!”

What kind of screwed-up, tasteless world do we live in when a purveyor of reliably filthy trash produces an unexpectedly delightful, entertaining, dare I say knowing book? What have we come to when somebody as vulgar as Waters has his hilarious chapter on business travel, “Delayed,” excerpted in the Wall Street Journal? True fact.

Or when the chapter in which he shares his business plan for his own painfully hip restaurant in Manhattan, aptly named Gristle, is printed in the New Yorker?

Gristle would be located on the only bad street left in Manhattan, if there is one…we’d be the snootiest foodie-in-reverse eatery in town. Dare to Dine Here! would be our motto. And then the stampede would begin.”

Actually, the New Yorker did not excerpt that chapter. But they should have.

“You want duck?…we’ll bring it still alive to your table so you can place it in the little culinary electric chair designed for your eating pleasure and pull the switch yourself.”

Think “The Addams Family” meets Every Hip Restaurant Anywhere. All ingredients proudly unnatural. What a fine pitch to any fat-cat investor.

Speaking of the pitch, this book is a how-to manual for ambitious youngsters, a smutty pilgrim’s progress. Here, Waters reviews his early days, unsuccessfully pitching the Hollywood suits:

“Young filmmakers, go Hollywood whenever you can. It’s not lonely at the top, I promise you… Most had seen Pink Flamingos at midnight somewhere in their youth, but that didn’t mean they were willing to risk their jobs by backing my next production. I was still unsafe.”

With chapter titles like “Clawing My Way Higher,” “Sliding Back Down,” “Back in the Gutter,” and “Act Bad,” how can he go wrong? Each one is a self-contained set piece kicked off with a low-res, grainy black-and-white photo oozing bad taste — like Waters with, good God, Kathleen Turner in “Serial Mom.”

Then “Hairspray” hit.

“All you need is one really good idea. And, boy, a fat white girl fighting for racial integration was it! The miracle of Hairspray is a gift that keeps on giving.”

But even after that, Waters is still doing battle with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), trying to secure a civilized rating for 2004’s “A Dirty Shame” (“Let’s go sexin’ one more time!”), starring Tracy Ullman:

“I was surprised by the rating. What can I cut? Speaking with the head of the rating board, the MPAA censor, who sweetly said, ‘After a while we stopped taking notes.’ Those seven words sent shivers up my spine. That meant there was nothing to negotiate. I was forever NC-17.”

It’s not easy being dirty.

But, at this point, we’re rooting for the Pope of Trash, the Duke of Dirt, Mr. Know-It-All.

So, he’s now in his 70s, successful, secure. Life is good. Got a nice place in Provincetown, out on Cape Cod. The waning Mr. Know-It-All waxes:

“Maybe it’s time to take LSD again. Why not go back to our bad-boy and bad-girl roots and take another psychedelic inner journey? An LSD trip is not something most seventy-year-olds would consider, but maybe they should. Old age sometimes needs the cobwebs shaken out, and what better spring cleaning of the psyche than a fresh dose of pure acid?”

So, with two longtime friends, including the actress Mink Stole, he takes a little sunset trip.

“I was fearless in my search for the outer limits of sanity.” It all works out, they survived, it was lovely. “We hugged. We felt safer than ever.”

Then it’s the end of the book. Time for the “Grim Reaper” chapter. Funeral instructions. Whoever’s in charge of Waters’ send-off “better make sure the mustache is drawn on freshly and in the proper place — use a Maybelline Velvet Black eyeliner pencil, and there are many photographs online that you can use as visual references. Dress me in one of my ludicrous Comme des Garcons suits.”

What music to play? Flowers? Gravestone? It’s all here.

Then he’s dead. And Mr. Know-It-All injects us into a loud, Sensurround, Grade-D horror movie, a scene worthy of “a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life…but all its citizens are happy…all filth elders themselves no matter what their field…all equally damaged; infallible and victorious.”

That would be us.

And so, this humane and incongruously inviting book ends. Maybe I didn’t miss that disreputable boat after all.


Barry Wightman’s first novel, Pepperland, a revolutionary, technology, rock ‘n’ roll love story, was published in 2013, received a starred review on Booklist, and won a Silver IPPY for best fiction from the Independent Publishers Book Awards. He has an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, and is past fiction editor of Hunger Mountain, a journal of the arts. He also offers professional literary and editing services.

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