John Waters’s First Novel Is Manic, Hyperbolic and Deviant. Surprised?

A Feel-Bad Romance
By John Waters
240 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.

In a recent essay for Gawker, Alexandra Tanner questioned why there are so many contemporary novels about “generations of women.” Often marketed as “sweeping or stunning, these books’ implicit promise to their readers, who are mostly women, is that they can, by reading them, understand what it is to be women from women,” Tanner wrote, observing that the premise, when abused, offers a spurious shortcut to poignancy and depth.

In the wake of Tanner’s essay, it was highly pleasurable to discover that the first novel from John Waters — film director, essayist, artist, non-woman, known hater of poignancy — is about … “generations of women.” A vibration of glee will twerk its way up and down a reader’s spine if she dares to imagine a team of publicists sweating to sell Waters’s filthy creation as a manual of insight into the female condition. (They haven’t tried so far, but maybe they should.)

From oldest to youngest, these women are Adora, Marsha and Poppy. Adora Sprinkle is an unlicensed Upper East Side plastic surgeon who performs cosmetic tweaks on pets. She has pioneered, along with Pekingese butt lifts and dachshund leg extensions, the implantation of faux testicles that can restore the stolen swagger of a neutered dog. Adora’s business is based on a simple insight: The human fear of aging can be projected onto anything. What is an un-Botoxed cat if not a walking, purring memento mori?

Adora’s estranged daughter, Marsha, is a thief who hates snitches, patriotism, children, food and people who stand instead of walking on escalators. She is appalled by the fact that Uber drivers are allowed to rate her. When a guy asks directions to the local mall, Marsha describes the wrong route simply to quench her appetite for random acts of sadism. Lying makes her feel “better, more intellectually advanced yet practical and, yes, prettier.”

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