Roughly a third of the way through the new Nicholson Baker novel, Traveling Sprinkler, a curious compound word, usually used only in certain spiritual circles, appears: lovingkindness. In Buddhism, the term refers to a meditation practice designed to expand one’s compassion and equanimity. In Quakerism – Baker’s maternal grandfather was a Quaker and the writer has spoken about the faith having a “slow, time-release effect” on him – its meaning is not dissimilar. Here, Baker’s narrator, 55-year-old poet Paul Chowder, uses it when describing his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Roz, an exceptionally caring person he characterizes as “the opposite of selfish.” “She was, and is, full of this quality that I’ve come to take seriously,” he says, “which is lovingkindness.”
Lovingkindness is a word that, in many ways, summarizes the evolution of Baker’s entire project. He also takes the quality seriously. From the cozy domesticity of A Box of Matches to the pacifistic Human Smoke and even sexually explicit comedies like his last novel, House of Holes, Baker’s work has been increasingly characterized by an uncommon empathy. I know of no other novelist as sweetly charming, so capable of life-affirming gusts of tender prose. Within that warmth, however, is a kind of violence – sometimes verbal, sometimes sexual, sometimes psychological, almost always comic – that prevents that prose from becoming irritatingly genteel. It adds a necessary and welcome ambivalence, makes the sweetness more caloric. This is Baker’s secret – that in art at least, lovingkindness often requires the ballast of its opposite: antagonistichostility. If Traveling Sprinkler’s literary antecedents don’t immediately come to mind, the tone is sometimes reminiscent of the better episodes of Louie, transplanted to bucolic New England.
Traveling Sprinkler is a sequel to Baker’s 2009 novel The Anthologist, one of his most winsome books. The Anthologist was a departure for Baker – looser, more conversational, less self-conscious. Out of a desire to escape the verbal virtuosity of his earlier work, Baker said, he composed it by speaking into a digital recorder. Traveling Sprinkler is in an identical mode (making this explicit, Chowder at one point mentions the little Olympus machine into which he’s speaking). The sentences are simple and matter-of-fact but occasionally flare into Bakersonian giddiness – of composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, he writes, “…he took the example of Bach and gave it his own Brazilian bean-salad sexual curvature.”
Among other things, The Anthologist chronicled Chowder’s inability to write the introduction to a poetry anthology that he had edited. In Traveling Sprinkler, Chowder is mostly done with poetry. Now he just wants to write songs – pop songs, protest songs, songs inspired by Roz or, more improbably, roadside vegetable stands. He buys a guitar, some expensive recording equipment and gets some tips from the teenager, himself an aspiring musician, who lives next door. Chowder’s songs are pretty terrible, but he doesn’t seem to care. As Chowder devoted a lot of time discussing the value of rhyme and the history of poetry in The Anthologist, here he muses a lot on music and musicians (as well as the history of the Central Intelligence Agency, the mind-expanding properties of cigars, and the titular lawn-watering device). Chowder knows a lot, and for added enjoyment, read Traveling Sprinkler with an open iTunes or Rdio account. He drops so many diverse musical references – Debussy, Paul Oakenfold, Tracy Chapman – that using only the music mentioned in the novel you could make a dozen playlists, suitable for everything from your next rave to Mom’s retirement party.
Chowder’s a beguiling protagonist: adrift, vulnerable and hapless, but also given to intense passion and wonder. One of his passions is attending Quaker meetings, and the descriptions of these bittersweet gatherings are some of the loveliest passages in the novel. Chowder’s narration similarly glides along, amiably and associatively, with paragraphs often bumping into one another in a non-sequential fashion, the jolt as pleasantly surprising as a sudden summer thundershower. As generous and open Chowder is, he also quietly seethes – he’s angry about Barack Obama’s drone attacks, about Amazon and Monsanto, about the fact that Roz has found another boyfriend. He’s especially angry when Roz becomes seriously ill. When Chowder’s ire spills over, like in the moment a cop pulls him over for not properly signalling, his outrage is shocking in its abrupt aggression (and the hilarious, over-the-top cursing, quintessential Baker, unprintable here).
Chowder’s rage is often directed at himself – his late-life tobacco indulgence is a little expression of self-destructive defiance – but it’s not a melodramatic, cartoon self-hatred (he’s not smoking crack, say, or chasing underage girls). Like most of us, he’s in vague pursuit of purpose, a road well known for its melancholy cul-de-sacs. But crisis isn’t chaos, at least in Chowder’s case. Baker has too much affection for him, and for the world he inhabits – even if it’s sometimes cruel. “I don’t want to know about evil,” Chowder says, quoting a Stephen Fearing song. “I just want to know about love.” Who doesn’t?
Jason McBride is a freelance editor and writer who regularly contributes to Toronto Life, Maclean’s, Hazlitt and other publications.