Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker

“My great grandfather wrote light verse. I come from a long line of extremely minor poets.”

traveling sprinklerA few years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture that Nicholson Baker was giving one night. He was very witty and funny, and his stories flowed so easily into each other (for those who rarely, or if at all, attend author lectures, many are quite tedious). With his seamless and hilarious story-telling at that lecture, it was easy to see why Baker tends to pen novels lean toward stream of consciousness and are less concentrated on their day-to-day plot.

In Traveling Sprinkler, Paul Chowder, the minor poet main character of The Anthologist, is turning fifty-five. He asks his ex-girlfriend, Roz, for an egg salad sandwich but what he really wants is a guitar.

That’s what I wanted–I came dangerously close to saying it–but then I didn’t, because you really can’t ask a former girlfriend for a guitar, even a cheap guitar.

And so, he buys himself a Gibson Maestro from Best Buy and follows on with his desire to write a protest/love/dance song, when he really should be finishing his book of poetry that he has titled “Misery Hat.” Paul seems less than motivated to finish the book and observes that “nobody wants to read more than three books of poems by anyone.”

The strength of Traveling Sprinkler comes from Paul’s anecdotes about his past relationship with Roz. Baker produces his silliest and most entertaining moments, while still retaining insight.

We used to read each other Victorian pornography, skipping the incestuous parts, which isn’t easy, because there is an astonishing amount of incest in Victorian pornography.

To a lesser extent, I found myself also intrigued by Paul Chowder’s historical delve into long dead composers and music. Paul, who had once been a student of the bassoon, often narrates about Debussy and others. As he attempts to write his song (often unsuccessfully), Paul finds himself weaving his way back to his youthful days of bassoonery.

Although it is quite obvious, that much like a traveling sprinkler, Paul’s narrative also winds around in various directions and waters us with its mist, the novel sometimes becomes cumbersome while it’s worked through Paul’s many different rambles. Where Baker’s language is fresh and funny in some places, when Paul Chowder is pondering the state of affairs in regards to the government and drone warfare, I found my eyes glaring over these sentences instead of delighting in the amusement of Baker’s stronger prose. These moments gave an unfortunate flatness to an otherwise enjoyable book.

The majority of Paul Chowder’s observations and declarations are both silly and astute. As the book propels forward, the reader tries to piece together the reason for Paul’s fluttering between topics that seem, at first, to be unconnected. For the majority of the book, Baker is able to believably tie together the thoughts of a main character who feels so lost in his own narrative.


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