‘Traveling Sprinkler’: hither and yon with Nicholson Baker
Nicholson Baker’s new novel meanders here, there and everywhere as it follows its 55-year old protagonist, occasional poet Paul Chowder. Baker appears Monday, Sept. 30, at Town Hall Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Traveling Sprinkler” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 30, at Town Hall Seattle. $5 tickets are available at townhallseattle.org and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.
by Nicholson Baker
Blue Rider Press, 291 pp., $26.95
Novelist Nicholson Baker has chosen an excellent title for his newest book: Like a traveling sprinkler, his novel sprays in all sorts of directions, many of them unexpected, while trying to find a way forward. As Baker’s protagonist, 55-year-old occasional poet Paul Chowder (who first appeared in 2009’s “The Anthologist”), lurches toward various goals, Baker’s scattershot prose sprinkles its way across the pages.
For this reader, the results are about 20 percent enthralling, 20 percent infuriating and 60 percent in that vast territory of “meh,” as Baker free-associates his way through his book.
“I haven’t mowed the lawn recently,” his protagonist muses, “because I don’t want to buzz through all the dandelions. My new plan is to smoke one enormously ugly cigar per week. Just one — or two, or three, or twelve if it’s necessary.”
Later, we discover: “I’ll tell you one thing. Two things. First, I like wind. It blows things around and it blows the cigar smoke away ... The second thing is, when you smoke a big, bad cigar first thing in the morning, it makes you need to go to the bathroom.”
Well, OK. Or how about this one?
“I want to write songs. Not poems anymore — songs. In fact, I made up another song in the car yesterday. It’s a protest song. This is how it goes: ‘I’m eating a burrito, and I’m not killing anyone, / I’m eating a burrito, and I’m not killing anyone, /I’m eating a burrito, baby, and I’m not killing anyone.’ ”
Later, there are some more intriguing and informed musings about music — about Debussy and his piano prelude, “La cathédrale engloutie,” about the bassoon (Baker had a short career as an extra bassoonist in the Rochester Philharmonic) and about the fact that “a note can be long or short.”
Things actually do happen in “Traveling Sprinkler,” however: Paul does write a protest song, gets his car repaired, gets his collapsing barn fixed, helps out his friends, discovers some good music and watches “The Philadelphia Story” with an estranged girlfriend who might not be so estranged after all. There is a lovely, goofy hopefulness about Paul that may carry the tolerant reader forward to the book’s equally hopeful conclusion.