Right now I am reading John Irving’s second published novel, The Water-Method Man. The central point of view is that of Fred ‘Bogus’ Trumper, his nickname well-earned through the countless lies he has used to pave his life. He has lied about mundane and inconsequential shit for so long that when the extraordinary happens, when defining moments occur, no one believes him. But in this self-appraisal that slides easily from first person to third, from present to past, we must admit that while Bogus is an accomplished liar, a man adept at verbal sleight of hand, a captain of obfuscation, he is honest with himself.
Bogus, it seems, works for an independent movie company in search of a project. His boss has decided that Bogus will be the subject of the next film. The name of the film: Fucking Up.
As I read about Bogus I feel the Bogus in my soul, and I wonder how I managed to go so many years without fucking up (more than I did). Recently I’ve reclaimed the Bogus, grasped my God-given ability to fuck up, clinging to what must be a basic human right the way a rodeo rider holds the rope tied around the neck of the angry bull beneath him. The beast is quivering with rage, wanting nothing more than to send me to the dirt and put a hoof between my shoulder blades. In rodeo it’s eight seconds. In not fucking up, it’s a lifetime. For a long time I was doing a good job not fucking up, except now it feels like the whole time I was fucking up.
I’ve not read anything by John Irving that I didn’t like, but I have to say that there’s something in Setting Free the Bears and The Water Method Man that resonates better with me than his later works. Bears has some rough spots that I’m sure Irving would like another go at, but the voice is there. It’s a great double-feature with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, with a lesson in Czech history on top. (I was not living here when I read the story, but it did inform my perception of the country.)
Maybe it’s Irving fighting against the pulp establishment, but in this story and in A Prayer for Owen Meany, which I also recently read, he has gone out of his way to say, during the course of the novel, that there will not be a definitive end. It may be in his other stories as well, but I wasn’t looking for it back then. Now that I’m aware of it, it seems a bit unnatural, a self-justification where one isn’t necessary. Either you understand or you don’t. Either you like questions or you like answered questions. With Irving there is no happily ever after, there’s just ‘and then we all kept on’, or, ‘and then I continued on the vector of my life, a tightrope act with despair on the right side of my balancing pole, and reckless optimism on the left. Ahead are the other acrobats, waving me on, beckoning to me, and on that narrow path true redemption and true damnation both lie.’
Irving’s gonna wish he said that.
Stories don’t end. Episodes might come to a close with a boom or a sigh, but the story continues. The brilliance of Owen Meany is not the grand convergence of Owen’s knowledge of what is to come, it is about the hinted, not ever written and perhaps periodic reclamation of the narrators soul, his return to the passion of teaching. Irving has a way with words, spare except when he isn’t.
Cells divide and sperm meets ovum. The sperm come carrying heavy suitcases, and the ova have baggage of their own. Somewhere in this convergence of crap is the magic we call life.
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