John Irving: The Water-Method Man (review)

I claim John Irving to be one of my favorite authors. That being said, I lack reading parts of his work and with this book, I’m trying to make up for it. Before reading this one, I haven’t read either of the two novels published before The World Accord to Garp gave Irving his huge break-through, so it’s interesting to see what Irving could do before that.

In this novel, some of the familiar themes in John Irving’s work are already present. As most of Irving’s novels, it takes place in part in New England – and in Vienna, Irving’s second favorite place. We meet hookers, there’s wrestling, writers and film-makers. All things that are often apparent in Irving’s work and feels familiars while he manages to put a new spin on them with each novel.

The Water-Method Man is the story of Fred Trumber/Bogus/Thump-Thump and the two loves of his life as well as his work on his Ph.d. thesis, a translation of the Old Low Norse epic poem Akthelt and Gunnel. Chronologically, we jump around between Bogus living with his first wife Biggie, Bogus and Biggie meeting and falling in love and Bogus’s relationship with his girlfriend Tulpen – which in a lot of way is a repeat of his relationship with Biggie – and his attempts to be a better father to Colm, his son with Biggie. We also get to experience parts of Bogus’ childhood – for instance the time where he and a friend both got crap from the same girl…

In this novel, there are some very Irving’sk episodes that are so hilarious that they’re almost hard to read because they’re so funny. One is Biggie and Bogus’ huge wrestling match where Biggie thinks Bogus has been cheating on her when in reality, he has helped a young gay man from the restroom where he was attacked, to his home. The man had some perfume water for his sister in his pocket, of course the bottle broke and he reeks of this – and of course, so does Bogus after helping him. Biggie immediately thinks Bogus has so little respect for her that he doesn’t even bother to shower after being with his mistress and in order to prove his innocence, Bogus wants her to smell his crotch – of course. Now Biggie has no inclination to do so – hence the wrestling. Biggie is a big woman and she can hold her own so it takes a while for Bogus to get her pinned down so he can force her to smell his crotch – and these pages are so funny!

My other favorite scene is where Bogus actually wants to cheat with a girl from the language laboratory he’s working at. They drive far out into the country and once there, there’s a long description of how hard it is to actually do something in the back of a small car. And then Bogus has second thoughts and jumps out of the car. The girl gets angry and throws all his clothes out and drives away, stark naked. Bogus runs after her, clutching his clothes and boots to try to catch up with her, running across barbed wire and more on his way and ending up almost being run down by her. He meets two duck hunters who has seen the almost hit and the naked girl behind the wheels, and they offer him a ride home. He dresses first luckily, and then there’s an absurd ride home where one of the duck hunters is plucking the duck inside the truck with the feathers at one point all in the air like a giant pillow, driving down the streets. When back in the city, Bogus gets a friend to help him home and he’s down in the basement, hoping to clean himself and especially his injured feet a bit before Biggie discovers him – when he of course steps on the mouse trap and screams so loud that Biggie hears. He has half convinced her that he went duck hunting and went out in the lack to get the ducks and therefore took off his boots and pants to not ruin them, when he goes to the bathroom in front of her and starts peeing – with the condom still attached …

Now I haven’t talked about the name of the book yet. See, Bogus is suffering from a narrow urinary tract. He doesn’t have the courage to have a surgery to correct it and he doesn’t have will-power to abstain from sex, so instead he tries the water-method – which means drinking lots of water, especially before and after sex, as well as limit his intake of alcohol. For most of the novel, this water-method is quite symbolic of all of Bogus’ actions – he’s to scared to do anything major to change his life even though he says he wants to change so he keeps to the middle ground and avoids to commit himself too much to anything.

Since I come to this book now and with the knowledge of The World According to GarpThe Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany, arguably Irving’s three best novels, I have a hard time with seeing this book’s merits on it’s own and without comparing it to these novels – as well as The Hotel New Hampshire which I also love. I can’t judge this book solely on it’s own – I have to compare it to the rest of Irving’s work (that I know of). And in that comparison, this falls a bit flat for me. I remember once reading a review of an Irving novel where the reviewer wrote something along the lines of that an 3-stars Irving novel was better than most author’s 5-stars novels. And it’s true. Irving has a special way of writing that’s just so exceptional. When I look at Irving’s work, this is not as good as the above mentioned novels which all have been 4 or 5 stars read for me. So this is a 3 stars read. To me, it’s an exceptional second novel, it’s an author who hasn’t quite found his powers yet but it’s almost there. And it was almost there – Irving’s next novel is The World According to Garp, my all-time favorite novel.

  • Title: The Water-Method Man
  • Author: John Irving
  • Publisher: Black Swan
  • Year: 1986 (1972)
  • Pages: 413 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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