Category Archives: Books

Nicholson Baker – “Traveling Sprinkler”

Traveling SprinklerHow would you begin to list the topics that Traveling Sprinkler engages? For starters—poetry, classical music, funk, Yukon Jack, cigars, Charles Darwin, Quaker meetings (“meeting”), Debussy, Matisse, Picasso, Ravel, Planet Fitness, The Talking Heads, Crystal Method, shrink-wrapping boats, jake brakes, high-end microphones, Fountains of Wayne, and bassoons. Lots of stuff about bassoons (all of it fascinating).

And love.

We’ve only touched the surface.

Paul Chowder ping-pongs away, his mind going where it wants to. The ideas shouldn’t be related, but Chowder wraps them all up in his universe. The items, the artists, the topics are all chopped and diced put, yes, into the big chowder pot.

“I’m sitting on a wet beach towel in the car with raindrops popping away on the roof. The driver’s seat was soaked because last night I forgot to roll up the window all the way. That’s what a Fausto cigar will do to you. You crack the window to let some smoke out, then it rains all night long, and boom, your ass is wet. I think I should stop inhaling. I’ve got another beach towel draped down from the roof of the car so that more rain won’t come in the window. It’s the only thing I don’t like about this car—no gutters.”

And soon we’re off to Paul Chowder’s “one-week dance-music self-study boot-camp syllabus” that is detailed from Donna Summer to George Clinton.  (I might have to make a mix tape.)

Paul Chowder is a struggling poet. He’s 55. He wants to write a song, figure out how to produce beats. And he wants Roz back.

“Roz and I are—I don’t want to say we’re finished, because we’re really not. We’re still good friends and we talk on the phone and I sometimes send her postcards when I’m lonely in hotel rooms. I still hold out hope.”

She produces “a medical radio show called Medicine Ball in the expensive new NPR building in Concord, where everything is carpeted and hushed and all the microphones are state-of-the-art, even if monophonic … They did an extremely good show on Lipitor.”

But Roz has taken up with this “very articulate” doctor from Dartmouth.  The competing suitor “fancies himself a sort of Oliver Sacks, I think. Last time I talked to her she said they were reading Tony Hoagland’s poetry together. What a horrible thing to imagine.”

Paul Chowder is working with his editor on the title of his poetry collection. It might be called “Misery Hat.” Or something else. He’s also trying to support Roz, who announces she has a uterine fibroid and is facing a hysterectomy.

Paul Chowder is a know-it-all, but happy to help and pitch in where needed, no task to banal or personal. He’s a snob about certain things and completely open to stop and recognize what makes Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” so brilliant.

The first-person prose is, in fact, poetry. Chowder (Nicholson) can’t help himself when it comes to styling words, giving them rhythm and beats within. Chowder, in fact, can understand anything he wants to put his mind to—including Roz and love.

Light or heavy? Silly or deep? Clever or dull? I found Chowder’s mind a fun trampoline that bounded from whimsy to weight. I enjoyed every bounce.