The Water-Method Man by John Irving
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When R.E.M. recently broke up, it occurred to me that I hadn't bought one of their CD's (or downloaded any of their songs for my iPod, now that CD's are passe), since "Automatic for the People" -- which was released in 1992. Everything else was from "Out of Time," "Green," "Document," or "Life's Rich Pageant" -- all released between 1986 and 1991. That means that their last seven albums never made it onto my radar.
Some of this has to do with the fact that I adopted many of my favorite songs between 1988 and 1994. But I've heard R.E.M.'s later work, now and then, on the radio, and it just doesn't resonate with me. I used to listen to "Pop Song 89" every day after school during my senior year of high school, blaring it on my (yes) cassette deck as I tore out of the parking lot, headed over to pick up my girlfriend from her school. I made a really crappy recording of "The One I Love" using my friend Leo as a fake DJ to try and seal the deal with a different girl, a year earlier (let's just say editing is a lot more seamless today). "I Am Superman" was my sign-off song during my brief career as a DJ on KSMU Radio, which had the giant broadcast area of the Hughes-Trigg Student Center -- and no further.
The newer R.E.M. stuff, to me, goes in two directions: the weird ("What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" has a quirky title and is loud and catchy, but so did "Sliver," and we all know how that turned out) and the vapid (yes, "Reveal," I'm talking to you -- the whole disc). R.E.M. had an amazing sound, but they didn't figure out how to keep it -- or success made the karma blow away.
My first encounter with a John Irving novel happened in a hotel near Orly Airport in Paris. I was on my way back to the U.S. after six weeks in Europe -- four in a study program and two traveling around with friends -- and I'd just gotten off a long train ride from Heidelberg to the capital of France. It was late, my flight left the next morning, and I saw "The World According to Garp" in a store in the Paris train station. I remembered the movie title (I hadn't seen it), so I grabbed it on a whim. I checked into my hotel, laid my clothes out for my plane ride the next morning, and got in bed with the book.
Six hours later, I finally put the book down -- done. The whirlwind that T.S. Garp and his mother, Jenny Fields, created, and the toll it took on them both, that brought Garp to a tragic end at the Christlike age of 33, swirled around in my mind. The next day, when my flight was delayed for six hours because of a faulty engine, I didn't even mind that much, because I was busy reading the book again.
And so, when I got home, I rented "The World According to Garp" and watched it. Like I would discover about all of the adaptations of Irving's books, the movies have to leave so much out that it's like watching a marionette play of the book. The closest that any movie gets to its Irving original, in my opinion, is "The Door in the Floor" -- but to get that close to Irving's grandeur in scope, it has to leave out a full half of the novel that inspired it ("A Widow for One Year").
So, instead, I decided to read everything else that Irving had written, from the beginning. "Setting Free the Bears" and "The 158-Pound Marriage" didn't do much for me, but "The Water-Method Man" did. It's about Bogus Trumper, who is having a really hard time making the leap from adolescence to manhood. He got his first wife, Biggie, pregnant right after they met, which led to a marriage far earlier in his life than he probably would have planned. Weighed down in Iowa by the poverty of life as a grad student, his young son, and his wife's expectations, he philanders and then just runs away to Europe, looking for his lost youth, symbolized by the nebulous character Merrill Overturf, who used to try to hook up with girls through such odd rituals as swimming out into the Danube and showing them a tank that had crashed down through the river.
Of course, there is no such tank, and when Bogus returns to Europe, he can't even find Merrill. By the time he gets back, his wife has divorced him and moved on to his best friend. He takes a job in New York City with his old friend, Ralph Packer, editing the sound for his films. He meets a new girl, has a baby with her, but then runs back to Iowa to finish his graduate degree.
In short, Bogus' life is disjointed. The structure of the novel, a wonderful mishmash of letters, diary entries, newspaper reviews, told in an order that more resembles a view through a kaleidoscope than chronological narration, suits the main character perfectly. We even get an allusion to Moby-Dick at the end.
The endings to most of Irving's early novels are glorious things, with explanations of what happened to everyone and, in general, these explanations are stories of purpose and power.
Somewhere, though, John Irving has lost his way. The whimsy that dances through "The Water-Method Man" and the powerful themes that run through "The Hotel New Hampshire" (the power of family despite a blind, befuddled father), "The Cider House Rules" (the right of a woman to choose) and "A Prayer for Owen Meany" (if Christ really were the Messiah, what would it be like to witness his coming, and to believe?) have faded, replaced by navel-gazing.
Irving's newest novel, "In One Person," will certainly be a best-seller, simply based on the author's name. Irving belongs in any discussion of the top five American novelists since 1930. But his latest efforts, "Until I Find You" and "Last Night in Twisted River," made me feel caught in an eddy that swirled around and around the hole the author feels within himself. His earlier novels were about missing fathers, which made for an almost mystical aura. All of his novels teem with lust and sensuality, but they have always had a purpose in reaching a bigger theme. In his last two novels, these elements have become virtually gratuitous. In interviews, Irving (and his publicists) promise us a novel more political than any he has written in recent years. He is at his best when he writes either with the passion of a conviction or the whimsy of a jester. We'll see whether either one of these made it this time.
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