Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker; Blue Rider Press, 291 pages ($26.95). When last we left Paul Chowder, he was “The Anthologist” in Nicholson Baker’s daftly erudite and sparklingly eccentric novel of the same name – in other words, perhaps America’s most instransigent advocate of rhymed poetry, however minor a practitioner of it he was. He was also a lover whose erratic affections – for his girlfriend Roz, for poetry and literature itself – were worth following from line to line in a manner familiar to Nicholson Baker’s delighted readers but no doubt to most others, willful to the point of peculiarity.
Baker is not a writer for everyone, clearly. But, just as clearly, he is a writer whose gleaming and wildly different facets belie those who would, on the basis of a couple of exuberantly dirty-minded fictions (“Vox” famous for Monica Lewinsky’s addition of it to the Clinton library, “House of Holes”) think of him exclusively as the thinking reader’s pornographer, a chortling mini-Rabelais for an era of excuciating correctness. That is a basic calumny on a writer whose “Human Smoke” is as passionate a pacifist document as we’ve had in our era and whose defense of print technology, “Double Fold,” made him a knight errant of literary civilization.
In “Traveling Sprinkler” – named after an arcane and archaic lawn watering device whose engineering enchants Chowder – we meet Chowder again because, says Baker in the publicity material, “I’d finally come up with a character I liked and believed in. I couldn’t let him go after just one book. He had more to say.”
And so he does. On music, mostly, because Chowder is now infatuated with songwriting and modern music technology. So he’ll tell you just as passionately about Debussy’s piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” and playing the bassoon (which Baker studied at the Eastman school) and Talking Heads’ movies. He’ll also discourse on movie stars with large mouths and small heads and his deadly serious loathing of Obama’s drone strike policy. Chowder, then, is a clothesline for Baker to suspend a lot of tweet-like opinions in a minor book with the pleasures of a major writer.
– Jeff Simon