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I just finished Nicholson Baker’s novel Traveling Sprinkler, due out Sept. 17, which takes up the story of Paul Chowder, poet and former bassoonist, who was struggling to finish the introduction to an anthology of rhyming poetry when we met him in The Anthologist. I was glad to see Paul again; here’s what I wrote about him when I reviewed the book here: “Chowder is such a richly wrought character — you feel like you know him well by the end of this short book. . . .(I felt) as if I’d had a long satisfying discussion with an old friend when I got to the last page.”

This time I felt as if I’d listened to a long, interesting podcast. Maybe because Traveling Sprinkler is just as concerned with the sound of things but this time, instead of poems, it’s the sound of Debussy’s compositions, electronic dance music, chords, bassoon solos, lots of songs, very nuanced parts of songs and their singers’ voices, a barn floor collapsing, a traveling sprinkler, the end of a headphone cord stuck in a car door bouncing along the road, little sounds in the silence of a Quaker meeting.

In between these riffs on sounds, Paul Chowder teaches us about cigars, all kinds of music (and composers, singers, performers, instruments, recordings), the history of the CIA, drone warfare, the iron content of black strap molasses, Logic music software, chickens, traveling sprinklers, Victorian porn, the difference between a poet’s works and voice, Reiki massage, shrink-wrapping boats, electronic keyboards, and all kinds of other things I couldn’t possibly list here.

Paul is trying to work on a poetry collection called Misery Hat, which his editor thinks is an unappealing title. Instead of working on it he finds himself drawn to smoking a cigar that “really smacks your brain” and trying to write the perfect protest song. Or dance song. Or love song. Or all of those. He takes care of his neighbor’s chickens, worries about his ex-girlfriend Roz, works out at Planet Fitness, walks his dog, and goes to Quaker meeting.

Even though Paul’s monkey mind is sometimes hard to follow — I found myself wishing I could have read the book in one sitting, because I sometimes had to flip back to recall references — he’s a very endearing character. The scene in which he visits Roz after she has a hysterectomy and she asks him to check if the doctor inadvertently left one staple in her incision is one of the most touching and improbable love scenes you’ll find in literature. Throughout the book, you feel what a deeply humane person Paul is.

And he’s a hero for our age: a man whose work doesn’t really make anything as tangible as a traveling sprinkler, who is facing late middle age without a permanent relationship, whose mind darts and turns and changes direction as quickly as he surfs from You Tube videos to New York Times articles, a man who knows what is beautiful and important in life but feels as if it is always slightly out of reach, often because of events far beyond our control: endless wars, the mysteries of the modern economy, and the use of mono instead of stereo microphones, to name a few.

You can’t help rooting for him. If you’ve never read Baker, fasten your seat belt. His work is dazzling and strange and wondrous, and heart-breakingly beautiful often on the same page where it is stunningly of-the-moment and even in-your-face. If all this sounds confusing, don’t worry. Just listen to Paul: “Maybe that’s what a chord progression can teach us. Out of the shuffling mess of dissonance comes a return to pax, to the three-note triad of something basic and pure and unable to be argued with.” That’s what Nicholson Baker’s fiction is, to me. “Something basic and pure and unable to be argued with” that comes from the “shuffling mess” inside his characters’ minds.

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