Sometimes Nicholson Baker writes a sex book (Vox, 1992; The Fermata, 1994; House of Holes, 2011). Traveling Sprinkler is not one of those. Are you disappointed? Relieved? Sometimes he writes non-fiction in defense of great and useful things unjustly approaching obsolescence (Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, 2001). Traveling Sprinkler is not quite like that, either.
Be happy, for Nicholson Baker has written an entirely new book: Traveling Sprinkler is a novel about why life is worth living.
Traveling Sprinkler is the sequel to The Anthologist, Baker’s 2009 novel chronicling the life events of Paul Chowder, poet, musician and man. He’s about to turn “Fifty Fucking Five. The three Fs,” writes Baker, and still missing the lovingkindness of his good ex-girlfriend, Roz, who left in the last book. He wants a Best Buy acoustic guitar for his birthday, so he can write a pop-protest song, perhaps highlighting the horror of drones employed by America in foreign wars, and he wants to ask Roz for it as a present, but deems it inappropriate, so he buys it himself. Instead he asks for a picnic lunch.
He’s trying to shape up his mind and body by attending Quaker meetings and Planet Fitness. “I went to Planet Fitness and parked next to an empty beer bottle,” Baker writes. Sometimes the living is easy, sometimes not. Sometimes Chowder smokes cigars.
Chowder is a likable character, the intelligent, non-threatening neighbor who’s happy to lend you his tools and offers to help with the work. Baker identifies with Chowder and has, at times, closely resembled him: He grew a majestic beard, wore a hat and practiced speaking about poetry in front of a videocamera. “It’s good to try to tell the truth for a while, until it becomes impossible,” Baker says. It is at that point a could-be memoir becomes a novel. “I like the guy, personally, but he’s a little bit different from me,” Baker says. “I’ve been married for a long time. I met my wife in college and we live in Maine in a house. But the house itself is very similar to the house in the book, and many of the kinds of doubts that Paul Chowder has about poetry and the kinds of urges to do something new with his life and all that, those are all sincerely my own.”
Twin markers of a Baker book are keen observation and insight. He expresses the things we see and suspect with such fine appreciation and humor, that attempting a one-up would be an exercise in folly. He writes: “I saw the sign for the state liquor store that’s lit like a prison,” which is exactly right; and “Debussy would have gone batshit if he’d had Logic on his computer,” which he totally would’ve. Baker renders sublime the intricacies of daily life. “I think that life has all sorts of planes, all sorts of cubbies, and I like to think about everything. I’m interested in everything. I just think it’s good to explore everything. Try to tell the truth about everything,” says Baker. He is one of the few writers who can insert a perfect ream’s worth of facts (about music, poetry, bassoons, bassoons in poetry, traveling sprinklers, etc.) without tedium.
Driving on Route 16, Chowder spies a tractor trailer hauling an oversize load and begins composing a witty ditty—12 Chowder songs performed by Baker will be released as part of the enhanced ebook—but it is his observation of the driver’s heavy use of a flatulent jake brake that resonates. “What the driver of the oversize load wanted was not that different from what I wanted. He wanted to make a sound. He wanted to have people hear him,” Chowder muses. One may speculate that’s what Baker wants, too—that and a happy ending. “I crave them, I need them. I don’t like when books end darkly,” he confesses. “And I want the best for my characters.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.