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Baker hero returns to take up songwriting

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Paul Chowder has just turned 55 and he'd like to see more love in the world. With so much "intentional killing of innocents" everywhere, what can one man do? Perhaps write songs people can dance to.

Chowder is the narrator and main protagonist of Nicholson Baker's latest novel, waggishly called Traveling Sprinkler. It's uniquely Baker, meaning it's provocative and disturbing, but mostly gentle and funny, making us see the magnificent in the mundane.

It is also a sequel to Baker's acclaimed 2009 novel The Anthologist, where we first met Chowder, a poet determined to bring rhyme back from the doggerel wilderness. Besides showing Paul as an articulate and lovable character, the book was a leisurely and quite brilliant meditation on literature, with lovely turns of phrase and crystal-clear explanations.

It would seem to be a natural next step to go from promoting more rhyme to creating songs. In Traveling Sprinkler, Chowder tells us he once played the bassoon, he likes music of all kinds and he respects composers both classical and contemporary, Claude Debussy as much as Paul McCartney.

Chowder, who has three books of poetry and an anthology behind him, likes to write in his car. "I can drive somewhere, park, put my notebooks and my papers on the dashboard, clamp on my headphones, and think hard in all directions."

He is sometimes distracted by what he sees as futile protests such as those calling for a stop to global warming. "What a hopeless cause. The earth has been warming and cooling for a billion years... Why not protest actions that we can easily end," like the sending of drones to kill people in foreign countries?

His main preoccupation is trying to compose songs, preferably love songs. He buys a guitar and a keyboard and, with the help of a young friend, downloads information and support from Internet sites like "Logic," learning how to give himself musical accompaniment electronically.

For readers who find his techno-savvy explanations rather difficult to follow, there is a good old-fashioned plot: he still loves his ex-girlfriend Roz. They have a congenial relationship and do keep in touch, but she has a new lover, a doctor named Harris.

Since Chowder is a gentle soul living in rural New Hampshire, he will not resort to dramatic action. He will declare his desire to have Roz return to him and he will wait patiently, content for now to learn how to compose and perform songs for wooing her. He sets up a studio in his barn while lyrics pop into head from everywhere. Even an "Oversize Load" sign on a truck can set him off:

"Yeah, he was driving down the road/ With an oversize load."

Baker, who lives in Maine, has mastered a way of keeping us entertained with little more than his language and his individual way of looking at things.

Traveling Sprinkler is a welcome addition to the Baker library, which includes such diverse novels as The Mezzanine, Vox and House of Holes, and such engrossing non-fiction works as U and I and The Way the World Works.

Oh, but why the title Traveling Sprinkler?

Possibly as a metaphor for Chowder's meandering prose -- but he actually does own a travelling sprinkler he loves and considers it one of the few great American achievements: "It's what America did before it threw itself wholeheartedly into the making of weapons that kill everyone."

Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer whose latest book is the comic novel Dating.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2013 A1

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