(Nicholson Baker reads tonight at Town Hall at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $5.)
I wasn't in love with Nicholson Baker's last novel, The Anthologist. The narrator of The Anthologist, a poet named Paul Chowder, seemed likable enough, but the book didn't display the bravura of some of Baker's best work. (This is the man who wrote an entire novel about an escalator ride, after all.) So I wasn't especially thrilled to hear that Baker's new novel, Traveling Sprinkler, was a sequel to The Anthologist. But, because I believe in Baker's skill as a writer, I decided to give it a try. I'm so glad that I did.
Chowder's narration still grates; he writes in an intentionally simplistic style that, one assumes, is supposed to sound honest, or at least earnest. Here's an early passage to give you an idea:
How do you do? I'm officially a resident of the United States of America. Millions of other people live in this country with me, and I don't know their names. I have lots of words in my head, bits of pop music, phrases, names of places, and scraps of poetry and prose. "Tough stuff." "Rough trade." "Party hardy." "Cheez Whiz." "Telefunken." "Matisyahu." "Znosko-Borovsky." "Misty moisty." "Serious moonlight." "Mud jug."
But Chowder's voice is not as cutesy-pie as in The Anthologist (you don't need to have read The Anthologist to understand or enjoy Traveling Sprinkler). In fact, he's incredibly distracted: Chowder, after being left by his longtime girlfriend and finding himself on the verge of turning 55, has pretty much abandoned poetry and instead suddenly decided that he wants to write a perfect pop song. He spends much of Traveling Sprinkler messing around with musical instruments, shopping for recording equipment online, and trying out lyrics in his head to see what they sound like.
The book isn't entirely about music. Chowder spends a lot of time fretting over President Obama's drone warfare—Baker, like Chowder, is a pacifist—and the CIA's various abuses of power. He attends Quaker meeting on a weekly basis. He tools around his New Hampshire town and tries to avoid conversations about whatever his next book will be. For a long time, it seems as though Traveling Sprinkler isn't heading anywhere in particular, that it's just an assemblage of thoughts and anecdotes in a vaguely bookish form. But Baker surprises you by accumulating all these strangely shaped thoughts and bursts of inspiration into a revelatory collage. There's a point, nearly three-quarters of the way through Traveling Sprinkler, where the portrait that Baker is painting becomes clear, and it's obvious that every word in Traveling Sprinkler was building toward something greater than the sum of its parts. When that moment arrives, it becomes clear that Traveling Sprinkler is one of Baker's smartest—and most humane—pieces of writing.