Novelist Nicholson Baker packs his pages with facts and thoughts, observations and dreams, in ways that somehow jigsaw together into a larger truth.
He explores the big issues in life by writing about minutiae. His books often follow the mercurial thoughts of his characters.
Baker's latest novel, "Traveling Sprinkler," is no exception. This time the writer — who'll be at the Twin Cities Book Festival on Saturday — has added something new, a whole album of songs.
The book brings readers into the mind of Paul Chowder, a disgruntled middle-aged poet trying to find some meaning in his existence — if he can focus long enough.
I feel like a traveling sprinkler that's gotten off the hose. I don't know where I am going. I'm unprepared. Good for me. I could make some extra money this summer shrink-wrapping boats. I should do that.
I want it to all seem easier than it is. I want people to think that I'm a fountain of verbal energy. I've never really been a fountain.
There's an excellent children's poem about a drinking fountain. The poet's name is Marchette Chute. I was fascinated by the drinking fountains in high school, with the warm suspect water that came up past the steam pipes. There was usually some flesh-colored gum lying like a tiny naked baby Jesus in the drain. I was thirsty, and yet the water burbled up and just barely crested past the germ-laden part.
Readers will know Chowder from one of the writer's other recent novels, "The Anthologist." In "Traveling Sprinkler" Chowder has moved on, a little.
"What it really is, is about a guy who is somewhat disappointed by life, but doing his best to be a decent human being, trying to win his ex-girlfriend back," Baker said.
"She's taken up with a doctor who's got a lot of charisma, and seems to be one of those radio-worthy doctors," he added. "He's got a big doctor radio voice, and he is also trying to write songs that will either protest things that he doesn't think should be happening in the political world or love songs that he hopes will help woo her back."
Baker, a former classical bassoonist and would-be composer, didn't just write about Chowder's songwriting. He wrote Chowder's songs and recorded them. A 12-song album is part of a special extended e-book version of "Traveling Sprinkler."
Software let him easily layer the sounds over each other, he recalled. "I thought 'Man, if I had had that when I was 19, would I ever really have become a writer?' But it is so hard to re-learn music, and to remember how incredibly great it is, but how difficult it is to sing a note. How difficult it is to sing in tune."
That's evident in Paul Chowder's struggle.
"He sets up a studio in the barn and then he's trying to sing whatever he can sing," said Baker. "He's trying to make tunes that seem pop musically compelling, and has some set-backs and realizes that this is a whole exciting new beginning. And really this is a book about a middle-aged guy trying to make a new beginning in life."
Why is Nicholson Baker's novel called "Traveling Sprinkler"?
Simple. He considers it one of the most perfect American inventions, and he'd never written about it. Baker said he wanted to shoehorn everything he could into the book.
"If it's just a partial scoop of the ladle, you have missed it, you have missed your chance," he said. "So I always start out thinking it is about everything."