Water Music is based on the real-life adventures of eighteenth century Scottish explorer Mungo Park as told in his book Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa. It also focuses on the imagined adventures of Ned Rise, a member of Park’s final exploration party, who uses his wits to survive on the streets of London. Both men are classic picaros, one in the mode of the adventuring nobleman and the other in the mode of the unscrupulous rogue. In the first part of the novel Boyle moves back and forth between Park’s harrowing adventures in Africa as he escapes mutilation and death at the hands of savages and Ned Rise’s exploits as he evades the clutches of fellow criminals and the gallows on the no-less-dangerous streets of London. Each chapter ends in a traditional cliff-hanger as the reader is whisked from the Niger to the Thames and then back again until the twin picaresque streams of the story merge, when Park returns to England a hero and Rise narrowly escapes death. Both feel the need to escape England and civilization, such as it is, which they do when Park makes his final (for him, fatal), disastrous expedition to the Niger River.
The novel has much purely visceral appeal; it is filled with sufficient sex and violence to hold the interest of even the most superficial and adolescent reader. Boyle is only following in a tradition, however; such violence and degradation were the stock and trade of the picaresque novel, which constituted the pulp literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Boyle uses the picaresque mode only as the means by which he can play with fictional conventions in an exuberant way. It is the language of the book that most catches the discriminating reader, combining as it does high-flown eighteenth century rhetoric with the flat and slangy language of the twentieth century. Other writers, such as John Barth and Donald Barthelme, have tried this technique with more success, but Boyle seems to take a great delight in his play with language, a delight the reader often shares.
Water Music is black humor at its blackest and most humorous. Called “High Comic Book Fiction” by one reviewer and a virtuoso performance on a grand scale by another, the book was both hailed for its inventive use of the picaresque/experimental mode and blasted for its comic-strip bathos and superficiality. Regardless of this mixed response, it is the book that made T. C. Boyle a name to reckon with in American literature.
In 1795, Scottish explorer Mungo Park is sent to western Africa to find the Niger River, which no European has ever seen. Mungo is the fourth adventurer dispatched by the African Association for Promoting Exploration, a group of wealthy Englishmen intent upon expanding knowledge of uncharted regions. His task is made difficult by geography, climate, and the frequent hostility of the Africans. Captured by the Moorish potentate Ali, Mungo is about to be blinded by Dassoud, Ali’s henchman, when he is saved by Johnson, his guide and interpreter. Born Katunga Oyo, Johnson is a former South Carolina slave who became the London valet to Sir Reginald Durfeys and learned to love the world of English writers such as John Milton and Alexander Pope. After killing a gentleman in a duel, Johnson was transported back to Africa, where he escaped and joined up with Mungo.
Back in London, Ned Rise, a lowborn Londoner, survives by his wits, and Ailie Anderson, Mungo’s longtime fiancé, waits for Mungo to return from Africa. Ned earns money in a tavern by staging a show featuring a black servant having sex with two prostitutes. Ailie, the daughter of a physician in Selkirk, Scotland, longs for Mungo’s return and must resist the attentions of Georgie Gleg, her father’s assistant.
Ned is the illegitimate son of Sarah Colquhoun, an alcoholic. As a youth, he was tortured by Edward Pin, Sarah’s lover, who cut off the boy’s fingertips to make him a better street beggar. After Pin was killed, Ned lived on the streets....
(The entire section is 1,695 words.)