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Travelling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker, book review: A strange and interesting mind delights

 

Long before we entered this golden age of over-sharing, Nicholson Baker was fossicking through the stuff of intimate daily life, exploring in detail which borders on the obsessive-compulsive the subjects that fascinate him – words, books, music, poetry, humans, sex.

He is a brave writer, not afraid of occasionally becoming something of a crashing bore, and beyond the reach of any kind of embarrassment. In U & I, his book-long fan-letter to John Updike, he cheerfully confided, "I have never successfully masturbated to Updike's writing, though I have to certain remembered scenes in Iris Murdoch; but someone I know says that she achieved a number of quality orgasms from Couples when she first read it at age 13."

There is, unusually for Baker, not much sex in Travelling Sprinkler, with only a passing and delicately literary reference to onanism ("I waggled my Shropshire lad that night"), although even in romantic mode he can produce a startlingly frank image: a shy kiss is described at one point as "somewhat dry, sphinctery". As you might gather from the unusual AE Housman reference, the novel's narrator Paul Chowder is a poet, and also "an anthologist of minor notoriety". Although he is curiously upbeat about his life, it quickly becomes clear that he is not in a good place.

His work on a new poetry collection, unpromisingly entitled Misery Hat, has stalled. He has bought a $70 guitar and is now trying doggedly to write songs. Concerned about America's foreign policy, in particular its use of drones, he is working on a protest song but having difficulty finding a rhyme for "Guantanamo".

Alone after the break-up with his girlfriend, described in Baker's 2010 novel, The Anthologist, Chowder has taken to attending Quaker meetings, although here too he encounters a problem: he is not actually a believer. "God' is an embarrassing word," he notes characteristically. "I can't say it without getting a strange, hollow, do-gooderish feeling in my throat."

He has decided, for his own peculiar reasons, that he should experiment with very strong cigars, and is also intrigued by a travelling lawn-sprinkler he has inherited. He confesses that sometimes he feels "like a travelling sprinkler that's gotten off the hose." Above all, he longs to be back with his ex-girlfriend.

The book is a delight: funny, tender and endearingly bonkers. A lesser writer dealing with a hapless, guitar-plucking, cigar-puffing poet on the slide in his fifties would be tempted to shovel trouble at him for comic or emotional effect. Baker does the opposite, imbuing Chowder not only with a feverish intellectual curiosity but with a generosity of spirit. The novel has remarkably little in the way of plot, but every page contains wonderful writing, and ridiculous but intriguing digressions. Baker has a strange and interesting mind, and a life-enhancing wit to go with it. Travelling Sprinkler sees him at the top of his form.

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