In his 2009 novel, “The Anthologist,” Nicholson Baker introduced his readers to Paul Chowder, a chatty cash-strapped fifty-something poet/critic and a passionate defender of rhyming verse. The novel delivered the pleasure of hearing a quirky but wonderfully thoughtful poet meditating on the work of other poets.
Four years later, Baker returns us to the world of Chowder in “Traveling Sprinkler” (Blue Rider Press, 291 pages, $26.95), an entertainingly non-linear commentary on art, sound and silence (with frequent digressions on cigars, burrito punch cards, and drone warfare). Our narrator is still entranced by poetic tones, but in this novel he has put aside the charms of such 19th-century rhymers as Sara Teasdale and John Greenleaf Whittier to concentrate on the sounds that can be generated by 21st-century digital music makers. Seeking to get his message out, Chowder loads up on software and an expensive mic — the tools of modern composition — and off he goes “to make a superfunkadelic dance beat.” In a sense, he is a modern-day troubadour, working to create a hit number, and by doing so, to earn the love of a lady.
In “Traveling Sprinkler,” as in its predecessor, plot is largely submerged by Chowder’s thought loops: his fascinating speculations about composers and performers, his anti-government diatribes, his efforts to find lyrics that work. What gives the new novel forward motion, however, is Chowder’s longing to be reunited with Roz, his former lover, who grew tired of his inactivity and left him. Roz’s new man is a crusading doctor, someone who speaks truth to power. Yet Chowder believes that music, too, can effect change, perhaps even rekindle the romantic fire. The fragmented lyrics Chowder comes up with (“kiss the lips/bite the moon”) and exotic digitial over-trackings are designed to win back Roz.
Chowder’s devotion to Roz is simple and beautiful, but for me, the best part of “Traveling Sprinkler” is the time he spends thinking about music. Baker trained at the Eastman School of Music and his protagonist’s observations are crisp and lively. Chowder is less like a music professor, more like a neighborly enthusiast who wants you to share his joyfulness. His tastes are eclectic, running from Debussy to Tracy Chapman to the canon of bassoon music. Often I wished that the novel should contain hyperlinks to YouTube clips.
“Traveling Sprinkler” is a passionate book, one that will delight readers who respond to a congenial, if sometimes hapless, speaker describing the many things that enrich his life.
Nicholson Baker will be at the Twin Cities Book Festival on Oct. 12 at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. For more information, go to www.raintaxi.com.
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.