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Traveling Sprinkler [Hardcover]

Nicholson Baker

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  20 reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A glimpse into a cluttered mind 17 Sep 2013
By TChris - Published on
Some writers have a knack for making readers feel good, not because they're describing a good world, but because they describe a rotten world in a good-natured way. Nicholson Baker reminds us that the world isn't all bad (even if the news is), that it's filled with well-intentioned (if sometimes misguided) people, and that much of what we fret about is silly, although much (like drones dropping bombs on children) provides good reason to wear a misery hat.

At 55, Paul Chowder (last seen in The Anthologist) is a bit late for a mid-life crisis but he's having one anyway. Chowder is struggling to shape a new identity. He'd like to write protest songs. He'd like to have big lips because he thinks women find them attractive. He'd like to get back together with Roz. He'd like to help people. He'd like to stop eating the peanut butter crackers that are giving him a potbelly.

Chowder figures that after publishing three collections and an anthology, he is finished as a poet. In his youth, Chowder gave up the bassoon for poetry; now he is learning to play a cheap guitar. His friend Tim tells him that taking up the guitar is "a middle-aged thing to do," that he'll be like the people at faculty parties who "sneak off and play Clapton Unplugged and Blind Lemon Jefferson." The wry humor in that observation, and in Chowder's response ("Exactly"), sets the tone for Traveling Sprinkler.

Just as the pleasure of music derives from "the singularity of every utterance," the unique nature of every individual's thought patterns is well illustrated in Traveling Sprinkler. Chowder invites the reader into his cluttered mind, chatting amiably about his scattered opinions and memories. Readers who are looking for some semblance of a plot might be put off but I found it engaging, largely because Chowder's thoughts are so amusing. He talks about self-improvement, cigars, movies, his theory of metaphorical interference, corncob pipes, poetry, Quaker meetings, his car, experts, classical music, pop music, dance music, Debussy, Monsanto, Amazon (which is "using its stock price to take over all of retailing and bankrupt the world"), tradition versus progress, and (of course) traveling sprinklers. He often opines derisively about the CIA and frequently criticizes Obama as a warmonger. Readers who cannot abide left-leaning opinions should steer clear of Traveling Sprinkler.

Although I've never been thrilled with narratives in which the author addresses the reader directly, Baker makes it work. Still, a good novel benefits from characters interacting in meaningful ways with other characters, an element that is largely missing from the novel's first half. Chowder interacts with only a few characters during the course of the story (most notably, in the second half, ex-girlfriend Roz) which produces little in the way of secondary character development. My only other complaints about this thought-based novel are that the ending is too obvious and that Chowder's lectures about the construction of music are a long-winded component of an otherwise breezy story.

Baker's writing is consistently witty and often strikingly imaginative. His pain-shaped humor reminded me of Woody Allen. I admired Baker's use of a collapsed barn floor as a metaphor for the wreckage of life. I appreciated the "misery hat" as a recurring theme; you knit it for yourself "and all of a sudden you're wearing it." Baker's comparison of a Fountain of Waynes song to a scrambling quarterback waiting to launch a pass is a little slice of genius, as is the parallel he draws between a Beatles song and a Tennyson poem.

When I reached the end of Traveling Sprinkler and asked myself "What was the book about?" I groped for an answer. In part, it's about the similarities between popular culture and highbrow culture. It's about a love of words and a love of music. It's about how men cope with the fears that accompany aging. It's about the struggle to live a decent and fulfilling life. All of those themes are interwoven but they add up to something larger, something difficult to define. I suppose they add up to life. If I could, I would give Traveling Sprinkler 4 1/2 stars.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tending one's own garden can be pretty spectacular if you are Nicholson Baker! 22 Sep 2013
By Sharon - NYC - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
As we travel along with the protagonist, Paul Chowder of "Anthologist" fame, we are drawn into the twisting, winding path of his mind and by extension that of the author. As he purposefully, or not, writes a book about writing a hit dance-music song, we are taken along a meandering journey of the intellect . You gots your poetry, you gots your rock music, you gots extensive digressions on techno-music, some pacifism, the art of making and playing an oboe, political protest and yes, you gots some religion too! And like any good novel, there is a love interest, unconventional and tender and touching . Want to really enjoy this book? Go to one of the online music services and play the extensive and varied music which inspires our poet turned songwriter. There are pieces as varied as those of Stravinsky, Debussy and Marvin Gaye. Not only will you love the music, you will begin to really get into the mind and heart of Paul Chowder . Did I mention that the book is funny. It is, and quirky and erudite. Nicholson knows a lot about a wide array of subjects and minutiae which he shares along the way. This is one guy's journey in a difficult world and you will be captivated by his thoughts, his musings, his interests, his loves and his humanity. Guaranteed to make you smile - just a little!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Words 6 Jan 2014
By Stephen T. Hopkins - Published on
Having started to read several books by Nicholson Baker, and having finished some, I’ve concluded that his love of words can become so obsessive that it requires more patience than I usually have to stay with him to the end. I finished reading his novel, Traveling Sprinkler, that reprises the character Paul Chowder, a poet from an earlier novel, The Anthologist, one that I gave up reading after a few dozen pages. Baker meanders with readers over the course of three hundred pages, finding every possible way to reinforce the sprinkler metaphor, or to digress on any number of subjects. I found some of this writing to be enjoyable, but after a while I couldn’t take Paul Chowder’s stream of consciousness any longer, and was reluctant to join him on another trip to Planet Fitness. I endured to the end, but found only mild satisfaction. Read a sample to test your own patience before you commit to reading this quirky novel.

Rating: Two-star (I didn’t like it)
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars So well written, funny, and meandering! 26 Sep 2013
By Ktina - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Poet still seeking himself at fifty-five tries to re-connect with ex-girlfriend while trying on new identities like cigar smoker and guitar player. Parts of this book are laugh-out-loud funny. Was led to purchase this book by good review in the New Yorker. Must confess to skimming some of the parts about the bassoon and the evils of drone warfare. Glad I bought it and got reacquainted but I liked the Anthologist better.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Meandering with a purpose 9 Jan 2014
By Ethan Cooper - Published on
In his wonderful novel The Anthologist: A Novel, Nicholson Baker features Paul Chowder, a "once-in-a-while-published kind of poet" who has agreed to create a poetry anthology and write its introduction. And for 241 of that novel's 243 pages, Paul procrastinates, busying himself with this and that while he, in a delightful fashion, muses about the history, structure, and beauty of poetry. Then, Paul focuses and, in the novel's final pages, completes his introduction and book. To a large extent, TA is about poetry. But through Paul, TA also shows how procrastination can be a working style. And it shows how procrastination can create collateral damage with Roz, Paul's girlfriend, moving out because she is exasperated with his dilatory work style and ambivalent commitments.

In THE TRAVELING SPRINKLER, Paul Chowder returns. In this novel, a few years have passed and Paul really misses Roz, who has a new boyfriend. At the same time, Paul, at 55, has reached the age when the compositional power of most poets is in eclipse. Finally, Paul is outraged at the Obama administration and its policy of drone warfare. But his long poem exploring drone warfare and its repercussions is hopelessly stalled. In TTS, Baker shows how the non-linear and whimsical Paul finds solutions to these three problems. Once again, wait for the final few pages.

The jacket copy of TTS points out that Paul, thwarted in love and poetry, turns, in this period of need, to songwriting, which he learns with Logic, a music composition program from Apple. As he explores Logic, Paul treats the reader to some thoughts about poetry. But he is mostly thinking about music, which he knows as a lover of pop songs and as a former not-bad bassoonist. These thoughts on music occur to Paul as he goes to the health club, smokes cigars in his car, takes care of his neighbor's chickens, attends services in a Quaker meeting house, and so on. Paul Chowder, in other words, is back. And he is, once again, giving his unconscious mind space to work.

So what's the point of the traveling sprinkler? First it's a comment on Baker's amusing style, which is deliberately diffuse. Observes Paul: "Say, for example, that you've decided to mention the traveling sprinkler in your poem. The moment you mention it, it starts to twirl and hiss and spray water everywhere. It becomes the controlling metaphor. There's no help for it, you're going to get wet." Second, the traveling sprinkler, which follows the S-shaped coils of its hose, takes an eccentric path to success. Says Paul: "The brilliance of the whole thing comes in its ability to ride the source of its power."

Rounded up and recommended.
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