SOUTH BERWICK – Nicholson Baker is trying to be a good person in a mixed-up world.
The novelist and critic, who makes his home in an 18th-century house in South Berwick, has a new novel out this month, a meandering tale about a recurring character named Paul Chowder, who lives in a similarly mixed-up world and is simply trying to be good.
The book, “Traveling Sprinkler,” is not an autobiography, but Baker makes no effort to hide its autobiographical nature. He began by writing a memoir, and found he had more latitude creating a novel.
The key elements in the book are things Baker has been consumed with these last few years: predator drones, songwriting, the decadent joy of cigars, and sitting quietly in Quaker Friends meetings on Sunday mornings, just waiting for someone to say something, anything.
With a new novel and a series of public appearances, one of Maine’s quietest and most thoughtful writers is back in the spotlight. He showed up at Monument Square in Portland a few weeks ago to protest President Obama’s intended strikes against Syria.
Last week, despite a bellyful of nerves, he mustered the courage to go on national TV with talk-show host and comedian Stephen Colbert.
“I have no idea why he would want me on the show,” Baker said on the eve of his TV appearance, professing ignorance and befuddlement as to why Colbert’s people extended the invitation. “There is nothing for him to gain — it helps him not one bit to have a writer like me on the show,” he said with a laugh.
Baker might have rethought his decision to go on the show when Colbert began by asking him about his Santa-white hair, facial and otherwise. Baker, whose face is naturally red, turned crimson as Colbert pushed this line of questioning, teasing the writer for the various euphemisms that Baker has employed in his writing to describe the male sex organ.
POPULAR AND CRITICAL ACCLAIM
On Thursday, he’ll read and talk at Longfellow Books in Portland as part of a national tour to promote “Traveling Sprinkler.”
Baker, who is 56 and has lived in Maine for 15 years, may be best known for his 1992 novel, “Vox,” in which the leading characters engage in vivid phone sex. It was a New York Times best seller and drew attention for its role in a real-life presidential sex scandal. Monica Lewinsky is said to have given the book to Bill Clinton as a gift.
In 2001, Baker received a National Book Critics Circle Award for his nonfiction tirade “DoubleFold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper,” which was part of his long-standing attack on libraries for reducing their paper media.
He established a nonprofit organization, American Newspaper Repository, to rescue old newspapers from destruction. So committed is he to paper that a portion of the centuries-old barn on his property in South Berwick collapsed a few years ago under the weight of his accumulated papers and books.
He wants to write only novels about happy people with upbeat endings. But as he drifts happily into middle age, he finds that harder and harder to do.
“I’m a cheerful writer,” Baker said, seated on a sunny a riverside bench at Counting House Park, a few blocks from his home. “I like not dwelling on things that are miserable. Why would you ask someone to read a book that makes them feel horrible?
“But there are terrible things in the world, and there are people, inspiring stories of people who have resisted those things or even had to suffer for their beliefs or maybe even died for their beliefs. It’s worth paying attention to those people,” he said. “Somewhere along the way, I started to think I should allow that part into my life, too.”
That’s why he lit candles at Monument Square to protest a potential U.S. attack on Syria. He had done nothing for too long, he said, and decided it was time to stand up and make his voice heard. An avowed pacifist, he did not show up at the rally as a speaker, but as a protester, one among many, for the sake of being counted as one who found the possibility of U.S. military action against Syria unacceptable.
He is not happy with President Obama, and has found him to be “a horrendous disappointment. I looked at the poster, it said ‘Hope.’ I certainly felt hope. But I have not seen anything.
“You are never going to get anywhere by blowing more things up,” Baker said. “All these countries, we do the same thing. We pick a side, give lots of weapons to a so-called good person, who is a rebel, and allow that person to unseat what we think of as the bad guy. And then lo and behold, the person we armed and corrupted, in a sense, becomes a terrible person himself. This pattern has gone on for generations,” he said.
“If you think of two angry gangs and you come out of a building with crates of guns and give them to one side, well obviously, the gang warfare is going to get worse,” he said.
Those are some of the issues, at least philosophically, that his book’s character, Paul Chowder, deals with in “Traveling Sprinkler.”
The book takes its name from a lawn-watering contraption that Baker’s father bought at Sears decades ago. Equipped with tractor-like wheels, the sprinkler travels along a course determined by the arrangement of a hose and dispenses water through a twirling device.
When Baker’s barn floor collapsed, among the things he found in the rubble was his father’s traveling sprinkler. Not only did it survive the fall, the sprinkler presented itself as the name for a novel and an effective literary device because it gave Baker the freedom as a writer to go wherever the hose determined he should go. Which is to say, all over the place.
LIFE IS NOT NEAT
Baker wrote a book about a middle-age writer with ideas about politics, music, poetry, religion and smoking.
Life is not neat, he said. It’s full of many turns, some that make sense and are predictable, and others that are less so. More often, life resembles a garden hose — with twists and tangles.
“The human lives I see do not have most of the events that are included in movies and books, so I leave them out,” he said. Instead, he writes books about everyday people doing everyday things.
“Traveling Sprinkler” tells the story of Paul Chowder and his frustrations as a lover and a poet. He is overtaken by a desire to return to his musical past, and turns to songwriting in an attempt to win his girlfriend back, with song titles like “Long Live the Weeds” and “Put Away that Gun.”
FROM BASSOON TO BOOKS
Baker was born in New York and graduated from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., with the intent of becoming a classical composer and musician.
He played the bassoon, and envisioned his life as a bassoonist in a midlevel orchestra in a midsize city. He joined the musicians’ union and bought a tuxedo. Music would support his forays into creative writing.
Failed auditions derailed that plan, and Baker turned to creative writing sooner than he expected. He published his first novel when he was 30, in 1988, and has mostly supported himself and his family as a writer ever since.
But he has not given up on music.
For this book, in addition to having his character explore songwriting, Baker wrote and recorded a dozen songs. Those who buy the enhanced e-book version of “Traveling Sprinkler” will also get Baker’s recordings. To some degree, they satisfy one of Baker’s long-held artistic desires, though he harbors no hope of a career change.
“I am very much an amateur musician,” he said. “I make the usual apologies for my own presumption.”
His character’s fascination with cigars also crosses over into Baker’s real life. Baker began smoking a few years ago because, as he tells the story, he was struggling to write a profile of David Remnick for a British fashion magazine.
He knew that Mark Twain smoked 20 cigars a day, and he views Twain “as probably the greatest writer in American history. It took him 20 cigars a day to get there, but he got there. I could probably smoke a few. But it does stink you up.”
Baker lit a cigar, and his fingers flew across the keyboard. He lit another, and the profile nearly wrote itself.
He had a new favorite drug. He kept the writing device going for this novel, and took it a step further. He wrote nearly the entire book while sitting in the driver’s seat of his car.
“My Kia has the most comfortable seats. I can sit in the driver’s seat all day long and write,” he said. “I love the driver’s seat of my car because it’s comfortable and it’s quiet. But when I was smoking cigars, the ashtray was overflowing. I was a mess.”
He still smokes, and expressed no remorse for his habit other than his tobacco odor, which he admits can be offensive. But he still figures it’s better than cigarettes.
A QUAKER OUTLOOK
The other element that ties the book back to Baker’s life is a Quaker outlook. A few years ago, Baker and his family began attending the Dover Friends Meeting, just across the border in New Hampshire. His mother was a Quaker, and Baker attended a Quaker college, Haverford College in Pennsylvania. But he never really thought about being a Quaker.
That is, until he attended a meeting in Dover. He is an avowed pacifist and has written publicly about that aspect of his life. But the Quaker thing was unexpected and profound.
He calls himself a non-theist Quaker. He does not believe in a personal god, but believes in the inherent goodness of Quaker meetings, which sometimes are marked by still silence. So much so that the sound of a ticking clock can feel dramatic.
At other times, people stand and speak.
“My wife and my daughter went to a Dover Friends Meeting, and they came back and said, ‘People said such beautiful things.’ I thought, ‘Wow, people just stand up and say things.’ That’s the kind of liturgy I like. I understand that.
“So I went, and it had the same effect on me,” he said. “You are forced to be quiet, but forced to be quiet with a group of other people who are also consenting to be quiet. There is something amazingly powerful about that. It’s not meditation. It’s something else. They call it expectant waiting. The great thing is, the uncertainty is, the suspense is — is anyone going to say anything at all? The pure meetings are ones when no one says anything, but I’m always terribly disappointed. I need at least one person to say something, anything. So I tried to put that in the book.”
FANS EAGER FOR NEW BOOK
Friends and fans anticipate Baker’s new book with great hope.
Richard Lethem, a painter from Berwick, has read Baker’s books and magazine essays, and attends Quaker services with him on Sundays. He enjoys the thoughtful banter that Baker brings to the community and appreciates his willingness to speak publicly about pacifist issues.
“He’s intelligent and smart, and he’s a hell of a good writer,” said Lethem, whose son, Jonathan, is also an award-winning writer. “He’s got a lot to say, and I enjoy his company at our meetings on Sundays.”
Liberty Hardy, events coordinator at the RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H., brought Baker in last week for his first stop on the book tour. The store was full to capacity, which is typical when Baker shows up for a reading.
“He’s not just a staff favorite here, but he’s very well respected nationally. Whenever I tweet about him, so many people respond, ‘Oh, my God, I love him.’ ‘Please tell him hello.’ I think it’s really cool that he lives in the area,” she said.
Baker is revered in the literary community for his wit and insight, Hardy said. “His attention to detail is unmatched.”
LIVING IN MAINE
Baker and his wife moved their family to Maine because they liked the idea of living a quiet life in a nice place with good schools. Their kids, now 26 and 19, are living on their own.
Maine has been very good to him and his family, he said, and he cannot imagine living anywhere else. “It’s the first place since I was a kid that really feels like home. It is the way life should be. It’s a state slogan that’s actually true,” he said.
They bought a house that was built in 1730. There isn’t a single right angle in the place, which is impossible to keep warm in the winter. But Baker loves it. He enjoys living in a house that is older than the country. He thinks of the number of shoes that have crossed the threshold over the years, and it makes him feel part of something much larger and more important than his solitary life.
At last week’s reading in Portsmouth, someone in the audience asked Baker about his sense of humor. With perfect timing, Baker laughed gently and paused to consider his answer.
“I have never been able to tell a joke, and I don’t even understand what jokes are. … The key to writing is telling the truth,” he said.
“Sometimes it strikes me as mildly funny, and that’s the end of the chapter.”
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: