If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you will know that Nicholson Baker is one of my favorite contemporary authors. Traveling Sprinkler is a sequel to one of my favorite Baker books, The Anthologist. It continues the story of his main character, Paul Chowder, a poet and, in the case of this novel, aspiring song-writer. The Anthologist was about Chowder’s attempts to write an introduction to his forthcoming poetry anthology, and in this new book, the anthology has come out, and Chowder is supposed to be writing new poetry. Instead, he spends his time learning music software and trying to win back his ex-girlfriend Roz. The format is typical Baker: his main character thinks about the world around him, shares his thoughts on this and that, and not much happens.
I don’t think this book is as good as The Anthologist, but the thing about Baker is that even while I’m thinking to myself, “this book isn’t as good as The Anthologist,” I’m still beguiled by the narrative voice. I don’t want the book to end, which for me doesn’t happen with very many books. I’m aware as I’m reading that the thoughts Chowder is having, random as they seem sometimes, do fit together and add up to something bigger. Baker weaves his themes carefully together, and in this case, he’s interested in what art can do in a world constantly at war. Chowder wants to write a political protest song, and he thinks throughout the book about drones and a friend who gets arrested protesting U.S. foreign policy, and he wonders what good one person can do, particularly a person who spends his time quietly, thinking about poetry. Here is where the traveling sprinkler fits in:
National Walking Sprinkler of Nebraska made Wilson’s machines, and they still do. They made them for Sears and that’s where my father bought his. Everything about it is immediately understandable. It’s what America did before it threw itself wholeheartedly into the making of weapons that kill everyone.
I have been trying to write a poem about this sprinkler for years, because I like it so much, and I’ve never managed to do it. What a joy now to wind it around Nan’s tomatoes and watch it, in all its intuitive clumsy ungainly beauty, do some good.
Chowder is trying to appreciate what good there is in the world, as a counterweight to all that is bad. This effort may not get him very far, but it’s a worthy way to spend his time, at least.
So even with my doubts along the way, I was feeling warmly toward the book by the end. It has large things to say about the world, but it does it in an understated, charming manner that I find hard to resist.