By Simon Demetriou
Since John Waters’ work is routinely called transgressive and perverse, perhaps it should not be surprising that the book Liarmouth most reminds me of is Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller. What Waters has produced is an early modern picaresque novel transposed into the 21st century, without Nashe’s literary flair, but with enough fast-paced grotesquerie and absurdism to keep you more than entertained for its 230 pages.
The action begins on a momentous day. It’s the day that Marsha Sprinkle, the eponymous Liarmouth, is meant to pay Daryl Hotchkins for a year in her service. The service is being her accomplice in a series of airport luggage thefts. The payment is sex. Naturally, being someone who lies as a matter of principle, Marsha has no intention of paying up. And when that day’s luggage heist is hilariously stymied by a little boy called Timmy, Marsha abandons Daryl to avoid both arrest and intercourse.
Thus begins the series of increasingly bizarre adventures that make up the novel. Along the way, we encounter Poppy, Marsha’s daughter, whose scatological conception story provides the reason for Marsha’s abiding loathing of sex, and who is now the leader of a radical trampolining cult. Poppy has been neglected and robbed by Marsha once too often and is out for murderous vengeance. She and her extreme-bouncing acolytes form natural allies with Daryl, who by the time he encounters them has discovered that his penis possesses the gifts of speech and prophecy, as well as the name Richard. Also among our deranged cast is Adora Sprinkle, Marsha’s mother, who performs unlicensed plastic surgery on pets and whose own dog, a Joan Rivers lookalike named Surprize, discovers over the course of the novel her true non-binary identity as both dog and cat. The last member of the Sprinkle family is Kent Samuels, Marsha’s father, who is both the town crier of Provincetown, Massachusetts, and King of the Rimmers.
The novel is subtitled ‘A feel-bad romance’. So where’s the romance? Well, there are various moments which might be called romantic. Or Waters might be playing on the idea of chivalric romance, which the early picaresque writers were so keen to satirise in the 16th and 17th centuries. But it’s probably the relationship between Marsha and Lester – dogcatcher, dog indoctrinator, and leader of the dog apocalypse – that leads to Marsha’s acceptance of sex and her own history.
Liarmouth is mad; it’s not for the prudish, the squeamish, or the smug. But it’s fun, and it’s tender, and like all good comedy, its absurdity encourages curiosity and questioning. Ultimately, you might learn to take yourself and things in general less seriously, and be all the better for it.