Poets get a bum rap. While I don’t doubt the variety exists, I’ve never actually met a pretentious one – at least not one who had actually been published – outside of the pages of a book. Granted that I live in the Midwest, but I’ve never come across a beret, cape, or fake British accent among the lot.
Paul Chowder, whom readers first met in Nicholson Baker’s 2009 novel, “The Anthologist,” would fit right in – except that he’s giving up on poetry.
Paul, who is still pining for Roz, the woman who had left him in “The Anthologist,” has decided to switch to songwriting in Traveling Sprinkler, a novel as meandering yet grounded as the titular invention. "I realized I didn't want to write sad complicated poems, I wanted to write sad simple songs. In other words, I want to write sad poems that are made happier by being singable," he says, before buying an acoustic guitar in a cardboard box from Best Buy.
Paul’s former training as a classical bassoonist may or may not be of assistance in his new endeavor, but it sure doesn’t help him as a lyricist. Take an early example of a protest song: “I’m eating a burrito, and I’m not killing anyone/ I’m eating a burrito, baby, and I’m not killing anyone.”
The good news is that “Only Rhyme,” the book he was struggling with in “The Anthologist,” is still selling, and he can always shrink-wrap boats for some extra money.
Paul spends his days trying to learn to write pop and love songs and musing about perfect inventions such as the traveling sprinkler and Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral,” going to Quaker meetings, watching “The Office” reruns, working out at Planet Fitness, and driving in his beloved Kia Rio.
“I like writing in the 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 says.
He also has taken up smoking cigars. (He’s given up alcohol and believes he needs a new vice. “It’s my brown period,” he tells a horrified Roz.)
There’s also plenty of time to discuss drone warfare, Stravinsky, Keats’ poem, “When I Have Fears,” why he thinks Picasso is overrated, and take carefully aimed swings at the poet Archibald MacLeish.
“I feel like a traveling sprinkler that’s gotten off the hose. I don’t know where I’m going. I’m unprepared. Good for me,” Paul says.
Like the sprinkler, whose journey across a yard may look aimless, by the end of the novel, Paul has managed to nourish almost everyone he comes in contact with, including the reader.
While his lyrics have a certain deadpan hilarity, Paul’s writing about music and poetry is thoughtful in its clarity. Take his description of why DeBussy wrote “The Sunken Cathedral” in C major: “C is like water, clear and simple and bright and transparent, composed entirely of white keys, but if you hold down the pedal and play the clear white notes together in a certain way, the sound becomes blurred and pale blue and lost in haze, like a distant monument seen through water. He swam closer toward the cathedral, and its image became more clearly defined, with pounding, towering, unblurred C major chords, until he reached middle C or middle sea. That’s what 'The Sunken Cathedral' is – it’s the piano of his whole life."
Paul’s longing for Roz is the center of the novel. He is turning 55, the same age DeBussy was when he died, and he’s asked Roz for an egg-salad sandwich for his birthday. They’ll have a picnic: She’ll bring egg salad, he’ll bring carrot sticks and a picnic basket.
“You really can’t ask your former girlfriend for a guitar, even a cheap guitar. It’s too momentous a present. It presupposes too much. It puts her in an awkward position. And of course you can’t say, ‘What I really want is I want you back,’ either,” he says.
Roz, who works in public radio, has taken up with a doctor whom, Chowder sniffs, thinks he’s Oliver Sacks. But she still has a certain residual fondness for Paul. As apparently directionless as his plans may appear, there is a method to Paul’s wooing, and the two dear, quirky people are impossible for a certain kind of reader – this one most definitely included – to resist.
While “The Anthologist” is probably a better place to start to meet both Baker and Chowder, time spent with either is never wasted.
Yvonne Zipp is the Monitor fiction critic.