Nicholson Baker's 2009 novel, THE ANTHOLOGIST, introduced us to Paul Chowder, a poet struggling in more ways than one. Unlucky in love and wrestling with writer's block, Paul was depicted as sort of a clueless loner, albeit one who could turn a mean phrase and knew a heck of a lot about poetry.
Now Paul is back, in TRAVELING SPRINKLER, which finds our hero still at something of a loss. The anthology he was working on in the previous novel has finally been published to some acclaim, but he is still struggling to write anything decent of his own. He is attracted to the imagery of the titular lawn implement and of Debussy's piano piece entitled "Sunken Cathedral." His ex-girlfriend Roz is still his ex; she's now taken up with an alternative medicine practitioner with his own show on the local public radio station. Paul still misses her, though, and in his loneliness he's taking up new pursuits, both positive and more self-destructive.
"[T]he focus here is on Paul himself --- on his vulnerabilities, his eager preoccupations, and his ongoing attempts to connect: with himself, with his art, and with others."
Having given up drinking, Paul has convinced himself that he needs to start using tobacco in some form. Chewing tobacco, pipe smoking and cigar smoking all seem to have their shortcomings (in part, the fact that Roz is repulsed by all of the above), but Paul is determined. He also finds himself attending meetings at the local Quaker meetinghouse, not because he has found religion, but because he enjoys the contrast and tension between speaking and silence that characterizes such meetings. But more than anything (except maybe Roz), Paul's primary preoccupation is with music.
Paul's commentaries on music range from his aforementioned reflections on Debussy (and his contemporary, Stravinsky) to ruminations on his own youthful aspirations to play the bassoon professionally to his desire to compose his own songs. It's a short leap, one supposes, from writing rhyming verse (which was Paul's focus in THE ANTHOLOGIST) to writing song lyrics; one interesting thing about this novel, however, is how truly terrible most of Paul's lyrics are. They range from lightweight songs inspired by such minutiae as farm stand product listings ("Native peaches / Fresh tomatoes / Lots and lots of corn") to songs protesting the Obama administration's use of drones --- a topic that Paul also circles back to repeatedly throughout his narrative. Paul may be a less than talented songwriter, but he does write thoughtfully about music and music making --- perhaps not as eloquently as he writes about poetry in THE ANTHOLOGIST, but his considerations are interesting nonetheless.
TRAVELING SPRINKLER, like its predecessor, might not be the book for someone who likes a novel heavily driven by plot. There is drama, but it's mostly of the small variety. Will Roz return to him? Will his barn collapse under the weight of his book boxes and recently acquired musical instruments? Will he ever write a decent song? Instead, the focus here is on Paul himself --- on his vulnerabilities, his eager preoccupations, and his ongoing attempts to connect: with himself, with his art, and with others.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 4, 2013
- Publication Date: September 17, 2013
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Blue Rider Press
- ISBN-10: 0399160965
- ISBN-13: 9780399160967