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
Staff Writer

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click image to enlarge

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

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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.


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."


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.

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