Picks and Pans Review: Room Temperature

updated 08/20/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/20/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Nicholson Baker

Ostensibly this thin volume is a man's reflection on his fatherhood. But what begins as a reverie while feeding his infant daughter—referred to only as "the Bug"—quickly turns into a rumination on childhood, peanut butter, bathroom habits (as they reflect the intimacy of marriage) and even the uses and meanings of that confounding punctuation mark, the comma.

In the retelling, such a range of topics seems impossible and impossibly silly in a book of barely 100 pages. Yet the novel mostly works, thanks to the narrator's charming flakiness. Mike is a man who contemplates making a mobile from inspection slips he has found in newly bought clothing, a man who listens to his wife writing in her diary and tries to guess, from the sounds her pen makes, the words she's using.

Baker, 33, whose first novel, The Mezzanine, appeared in 1988, suffers from thirty-something disease: There is no subject too small to agonize over, nothing too minor for literary melodrama. Sometimes his look-how-educated-I-am approach grates; referring to Frost, Shelley and Boswell, among nearly a dozen other literary names, in one five-page stretch is a bit much.

Anyway, this isn't so much a novel as a monologue that, save for its literary allusions, rivals those of the free-associating Eric Bogosian and Spalding Gray. Most of Baker's flights of imagination are clever and amusing. Even a discourse on the relationship between romance and bodily elimination has a purpose: "The two of us often used unsavory physical revelations to test adoration's power to absorb and transform the crudest provisions into loveable and revealing things about each other."

It is to be hoped that Baker takes his narrator's father's advice about writing. " 'That's good mental exercise,' Dad said. You should try to do that a lot.' " (Grove Weidenfeld, $15.95)

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