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Nicholson Baker
Traveling Sprinkler
Blue Rider Press / Penguin Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-399-16096-7
Publication Date: 09-17-2013
294 Pages; $26.95
Date Reviewed: 10-14-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  General Fiction

Paul Chowder may be "three F's" fifty-five years old, and as statistics would have it, through as a poet. But he has an advantage in that he does not seem to have grown up. As 'Traveling Sprinkler' begins, his one-time girlfriend Roz is an ex, but he's hoping she'll buy him a guitar for his birthday. He used to play the bassoon. He admires "The Sunken Cathedral" by Claude Débussy greatly. The thoughts just keep on coming.

If Chowder is through as a poet, it's because he really wants to be a songwriter — thus the guitar. In other words, just the right ones, actually, Paul Chowder has not stopped thinking, and Nicholson Baker is still listening to those thoughts and artfully (but not too artfully) recording them for readers. Welcome to the Paul Chowder poetry thoughtcast, with plenty of MIDI technology, low-key angst, public radio, and love.

If you're intrigued by the title, or anything else of what you've read so far, make a quick trip to the trade paperback section and pick up 'The Anthologist,' the thoroughly charming novel that introduces Paul Chowder. It's not like a lot happens, but that is precisely the point, and it is important. Baker nailed a very unique style in that novel, a lighthearted stream-of-consciousness that he carries on here in wonderfully fine form.

As 'Traveling Sprinkler' begins, Paul Chowder is still in a bit of a downturn. His girlfriend Roz has left him and, worse still, she's taken up with a fellow she works with who hosts a show on an NPR affiliate. He's smart and accomplished and has a real direction in life. Meanwhile, Paul Chowder now has a book of his own poetry due. He's given it an unfortunate title, and he's not surprisingly disinclined to work on it. Instead, he wants to be a songwriter. Baker sets up a wonderfully understated life and generates real tension about the outcome.

'Traveling Sprinkler' includes discourses on many subjects beyond Paul Chowder's personal problems. Readers will get an earful of bassoon, Débussy and the Logic music software program, as well as those sparse but evocative descriptions of the New England landscape. Baker's stream-of-consciousness is restless, funny, and endlessly engaging. You can't help but like Paul Chowder and root for him even as he dithers and does his damnedest to undermine his own best efforts.

For all the light touches in and fun to be had with 'Traveling Sprinkler' (and 'The Anthologist'), Baker displays a real talent for a mind's-eye vision of the semi-rural, artistic life and the New England landscape. Chowder tools around in an aging Kia, finding nice places to park and write and think. With Baker at the helm, we get to as well. Baker makes all this look so easy; he makes life look easy, but we all know that's not generally the case. Read Nicholson Baker and you might be convinced to squint your eyes so just for a second, everything will look right. For a moment, or more, enjoy your thoughts.

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