September 24, 2013

Quiet Maine author decides to speak up

Nicholson Baker joins a protest in Portland, goes on national TV and is touring to promote his new novel.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SOUTH BERWICK – Nicholson Baker is trying to be a good person in a mixed-up world.

click image to enlarge

Author Nicholson Baker, a South Berwick resident, photographed Monday, September 16, 2013,

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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."

(Continued on page 2)

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