Typically, when a novel opens, the author takes at least a page or two to plant his settings and place his characters, story, and pace. In “Water Music”, it only takes T. C. Boyle a short paragraph to do so. His opening rouses you like a sudden thunder clap or a swift cuff across the face that makes you sit up sharp and pay attention.

At an age when most young Scotsmen were lifting skirts, plowing furrows and spreading seed, Mungo Park was displaying his bare buttocks to al-haj’ Ali Ibn Fatoudi, Emir of Ludamar. The year was 1795. George III was dabbing the walls of Windsor Castle with his own spittle, the Notables were botching things in France, Goya was deaf, DeQuincey a depraved pre-adolescent. George Bryan “Beau” Brummell was smoothing down his first starched collar, young Ludwig van Beethoven, beetle-browed and twenty-four, was wowing them in Vienna with his Piano Concerto no. 2, and Ned Rise was drinking Strip-Me-Naked with Nan Punt and Sally Sebum at the Pig & Pox Tavern in Maiden Lane.

Mungo Park, for those who have never heard of him, was a Scottish explorer who wanted to chart the course of the Niger in the early 1800’s. He was blond and bonny, and he was an adventure lust whose ambition was to plumb the dark recesses of Africa and tell all of Europe about it. Ned Rise, on the other hand, was a victim of the grimness of London’s poor classes which through TCB’s descriptions made Dickens seem like a fairy tale writer. His life was a concatenation of misfortunes that sadistic fate dealt out with formulaic precision. The destinies of the two men would ultimately collide in Africa, with Ned Rise joining Mungo Park’s efforts not so much for the glory of his mission as the necessity of saving his own hide.

The author makes no bones about the historical accuracy of his tale. But inasmuch as the facts surrounding Mungo Park’s disappearance in Africa were mostly speculation anyway, his account is as good as any. And much more entertaining too.

TCB spares us nothing of the gory details of filth, crime, illness, disease, abandonment, death and resurrection. Readers are drawn into his tale like a freak show that piles horror upon heartbreak upon horror and stay until the morbid end, all the while hoping for some kind of salvation. We follow Mungo Park along his foolhardy enterprise not so much because we care about the Niger as to protect him from harm which will inevitably befall. Rolling along in his palpitating pace, TCB gives us no rest from his heroes’ head-spinning and mind-reeling adventures. Writing in his signature stylish prose and amplitudinous vocabulary (which you can understand with a smattering of French, Latin, Arabic and your imagination from the context), TCB is also a master of local dialect. After Water Music, you could almost come out speaking like a Scotsman who’s imbibed too much gin, or grunt with bared teeth like bushmen cannibals.

Heartbreaking but far from being a nihilistic tale, this novel is about hope and fervor, told in the style of tragic comedy. TCB is a deft story-teller who takes you on an amazing ride, finely tuned and orchestrated as if he were conducting a flawless symphony. Which is what Water Music is.

And by the way, this spectacular masterpiece was TCB’s first novel in 1981.

Water Music
by T. C. Boyle
464 pages
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I laughed all the way through till the end, and then I cried.

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