Staff Pick: The Water-Method Man

November 25, 2010 | 2 books mentioned 2 2 min read

For me, John Irving was a phase, one that coincided with frequent showers, acute anxiety about body hair, and pining after floppy-haired young men.  John Irving was the novelist of my teens.  I don’t think it’s immaterial, the way he smolders in his jacket photos, his knowing, virile gaze framed by that fratty, bountiful hair. Teenagers are very suggestible.

I felt a little wistful this summer, revisiting The World According to Garp and finding myself unmoved.  The novel, which was once a revelation, now seemed a little bit smarmy and ludicrous.  Maybe this is the way  today’s teens will feel one day when they happen across a Bieber photo.

coverFortunately, I can still count on The Water-Method Man.  It’s also ludicrous.  But it doesn’t try too hard, it’s up-front about its protagonist’s foibles and phallic preoccupations, and it’s still one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read.  

Chapter 1 introduces Fred “Bogus” Trumper, lapsed graduate student, urology patient.  Chapter 2 introduces Merrill Overturf, Trumper’s one-time familiar, one of the unsung heroes of literature.  The memory of Merrill succors Trumper during his doctoral days:

Among his other kicks, Fred Bogus Trumper likes to remember Merrill Overturf, the diabetic… Such escapism.  Listening to Merrill, in Vienna–while looks out of his Iowa window, through a rusty screen and a fat katydid’s wing; he sees a slow-moving, beshitted truck, brimming with hogs.

As the novel progresses, we learn of Trumper’s financial problems (“Please refrain from sending me further form letters about your famous Rising Rate Scale, and your awkwardly veiled threats of ‘constables'”), his woman problems (Biggie, Tulpen, and Lydia Kindle), his dissertation problems (a translation of Akthelt and Gunnel, from the original Old Low Norse), and, critically, his dick problems (his urinary tract is a “narrow, winding road”).

Trumper’s trials are legion, but he muddles his way through; his triumphs over adversity culminate in Throgsgafen, a free-spirited kind of holiday gathering in the best tradition of Akthelt and Gunnel (and the early seventies).  As the novelist points out, “our own tame, dry-turkey version of Throgsgafen is indeed an embarrassing substitute.”

I love The Water-Method Man.  Consider it my best suggestion for a holiday pick-me-up—a panacea for turkey fuck-ups, family dust-ups, and TSA feel-ups.

In the spirit of Bogus, Happy Throgsgafen.  And, in his words, here’s “wishing you… infinite varieties of Hope and Freedom From the Fear of Doom.”

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. I also went through an Irving phase in my teens, and The Water Method Man stood the test of time for me as well. Definitely one of the funniest contemporary novels, without being obnoxiously comic. I also think that it’s Irving’s least self-conscious work, with the possible exception of Setting Free the Bears.

    Thanks for reminding us all of this excellent novel.

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