Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

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


Terence Blacker
Thursday 29 May 2014 16:54 BST
Life-enhancing wit: Nicholson Baker
Life-enhancing wit: Nicholson Baker (Rex Features)

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.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in