Critical Evaluation

Water Music announced the arrival of a fresh voice in American fiction. T. Coraghessan Boyle’s debut novel established a pattern that he would follow in subsequent works such as World’s End (1987), The Road to Wellville (1993), and The Women (2009). In these novels, Boyle uses the past, often incorporating historical figures and events, to examine the foibles of his own time.

While working on a doctorate at the University of Iowa in the 1970’s, Boyle emphasized nineteenth century English literature in his studies, though a collection of short stories served as his dissertation. Water Music shows the influence of works by Charles Dickens such as Oliver Twist: Or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (serial, 1837-1839; book, 1838; originally pb. as The Adventures of Oliver Twist) and David Copperfield (serial, 1849-1850; book, 1850; originally pb. as The Personal History of David Copperfield), but it also has much in common with earlier English novels. With the constant ups and downs of its characters; its reliance on coincidence; and its treatment of poverty, greed, crime, bawdy sex, and bodily functions, Water Music recalls such picaresque novels as Henry Fielding’s The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743; revised, 1754), Tobias Smollett’s The Advertures of Roderick Random (1748), and Daniel Defoe’s The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Written from Her Own Memorandums (1722; commonly known as Moll Flanders).

Like John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor (1960; revised, 1967) and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964), Water Music offers a loving perspective on the conventions of the picaresque novel. The novel is full of colorful characters, improbable situations, and numerous cliffhangers. Though Boyle visited London and Selkirk, he...

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