Six years before becoming a household name with his grand picaresque novel about how a man named Garp saw the world, John Irving published his sophomore novel about a man known as Trumper. The Water Method Man can accurately be situated among the long list of coming-of-age stories that often dominate the early works of developing authors. Where Trumper is a significant deviation from so many of those other young heroes whose aging is coming is, well, his age. Trumper is a grad student who is old enough to already be a former grad student.
Yet Trumper nevertheless embodies both irresponsibility and genetic predisposition to fully committing to anything, thus exhibiting a defining trait of coming-of-age protagonist. The conflict which stimulates his decision to finally accept that he must become a grown-up is also uniquely idiosyncratic within the legacy of this genre.
The title of Irving’s most unambiguously comic novel is an experimental treatment that Trumper undertakes in a desperate bid to unblock his urinary tract: a condition causing not just physical pain, but profound emotional stress resulting from the negative impact the blockage is having on his sex life. What follows is the episodic and often highly anti-realistic, but boisterous journey of Trumper toward maturation that involves on-again, off-again romances, dead friends, drug smuggling, art films, surgery, and the caretaker of the Pillsbury estate.
Remember, though, that Trumper is a grad student and that his dissertation in progress is about an ancient Norse saga titled Akthelt and Gunnel whose genuinely morbid and horrific story about Oedipal conflicts and castration mirrors the same theme that runs through Trumper’s decided less mythic tale. In addition to drawing upon Norse mythology, The Water Method Man also inhabits a distinctly Shakespearean realm where the natural world seems to have the power to heal the madness imposed by the conventions of society.