Anyone from John Waters’s legion of fans may be forgiven for cracking the spine of Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance with some trepidation. Has time mellowed his edges? Is a softer, gentler version of Waters waiting between these covers?
Not by a long shot. Liarmouth dispels any fear that the self-professed “People’s Pervert” has run out of smut. There are gag-worthy bits of depravity on every page. At times, there are so many per paragraph you may want to take a break and wash your hands. All that dirty page-turning can make you feel sticky. But viewed through Waters’s rose-tinted, glitter-rimmed glasses, even depravity looks beautiful.
A failed suitcase theft at Baltimore/Washington International Airport sets the plot racing. Partners-in-crime Marsha and Daryl escape through separate exits and into different fates. A manic chase begins and doesn’t stop until all the characters finally collide on Commercial Street in Provincetown. It’s an adults-only thrill ride at the skeeviest amusement park imaginable.
Marsha Sprinkle is the Liarmouth of the title and Waters’s anti-heroine and star. Her world view — and I suspect it’s a view shared by the author — is divided along two lines: those who are stagnant and those who keep moving forward. Motion is life. People who sit still are as good as dead. Even the people who stand instead of walking on a moving walkway are losers in her mind. Though her intentions toward everyone she meets are malevolent, her focus is inspiring. She allows nothing to alter her forward trajectory. She cheats, steals, fights, and lies with joyful abandon. Lying especially releases her endorphins, giving her a feeling akin to self-love. And Marsha needs love.
Daryl wants love, too, specifically from Marsha. But these grifters are star-crossed. He sees himself as a crime buddy and soon-to-be lover. She side-eyes him as a disposable employee, one she can’t wait to get rid of. One night of carnality per year will be Daryl’s payment for assisting her bread-and-butter crimes, mainly suitcase theft. But with an exceedingly sensitive erection befuddling his mind, he fumbles the theft that sets them both running.
The lead characters in a novel typically have heroic attributes that make a reader want to see them succeed. But Waters gives Marsha and Daryl an abundance of reprehensible character flaws. Marsha hates so many things about so many people that she’s bound to hit on a few in common with the reader. What really fuses Waters’s scheming anti-heroes with his readers is his characters’ good old-fashioned optimism.
Waters’s oeuvre is replete with optimists. On either side of Hairspray’s Tracy Turnblad, his most famous and probably most optimistic character, are people full of hopes and dreams. A determination to fight injustice, be seen, and make a better life for oneself is at the emotional core of all his stories. In turn, we can’t resist an underdog with a dream, and Liarmouth is overrun by dreamers — kidnappers, ticklers, carjackers, hookers, drag queens, dog catchers, vengeful relatives, and many others. We can’t help but want these scoundrels to succeed. After all, they could be us.
Among the most compelling characters in Liarmouth are the self-described “members of the Bounce Community,” people for whom a trampoline is a not just a kind of exercise but a way of life. Waters deploys them as a demented Greek chorus who jump up and down behind the main characters, add commentary, and provide distraction from the occasional lapse in narrative plausibility. Like Marsha, they are people for whom stillness is equivalent to nonexistence. Oppressed by “anti-bouncers,” who angrily demand that they stop moving and conform, these rebel misfits hop fearlessly into the unknown. Their destinations matter less than their need for continuous motion.
An ability to drop thorny social topics into the most outrageous circumstance — and then skewer and spit them out in the same breath — is what makes Waters not only clever but lovable. When Daryl’s talking psychic penis comes out as gay, Daryl, who identifies as straight, is not strong enough to deter his independent member from aggressively seeking same-sex action. While getting it on with a conductor on a moving train, Daryl contemplates whether it’s still consent if only half of a person is willing.
Yet behind every subversive peccadillo beats a heart full of encouragement. Waters doesn’t just want to make you laugh. He wants you to get up out of your chair and run toward whatever it is that you desire. If something keeps you from running, Waters tells us, then roll, shake, bounce, or fly. But don’t stop until you get it.
Waters feels a commitment to the pop culture gods of yesteryear, but some of his name-drops — Frances Farmer, Jean Harris, Edgar Cayce — break the novel’s otherwise nonstop momentum. Younger readers will find themselves typing plenty of names into a search engine. (If you get why those name-drops are funny, you may need supplemental Medicare.) Others may feel their giddiness deflated.
When the action crashes into Provincetown, there’s a sexually deviant theme week happening that does not (at present) exist in real life. No spoilers here. If you read the book, you’ll know. Otherwise, you can wait until the Waters-helmed film version of Liarmouth (announced earlier this month) begins shooting in town. Before that glorious day arrives, rest assured that Waters is doing his part to preserve what makes Provincetown wonderful and weird by reminding the world that this is a place for freaks of all stripes, now and (let us hope) forever.
If you’d rather listen to the audiobook version of Liarmouth than read it, Waters is a terrific narrator of his own work. Audio narration is an art, one in which few nonprofessionals succeed. Waters, however, conveys his material with aplomb. His speaking voice is clear and energetic, and he reads at a snappy pace. At 6 hours 47 minutes, it’ll help you get all your steps in. Just don’t be surprised if you stop walking and start bouncing.