By Harvey Blume
Nicholson Baker’s new novel is about a man obsessed with killing President Bush.
Checkpoint: A Novel by Nicholson Baker. (Knopf)
Nicholson Baker’s short, funny — and frequently tender — new novel consists of a conversation between Ben and Jay, high school buddies who haven’t seen each other in a few years, and come together again, at Jay’s urging, in a Washington D.C. hotel. What they share at this re-union, besides some reminiscences, is their abhorrence for American foreign policy and their taste for Bush-bashing. But Jay, unlike Ben, takes the notion of bashing very literally. He has become obsessed with doing away with the President, and with techniques for getting the job done.
He’s privy, for example, to “some radio-controlled flying saws, they look like little CDs but they’re ultrasharp.” He’s also mulled over using “a huge boulder … that has a giant ball bearing in the center of it so that it rolls wherever I tell it to.” But after the surreal R&D, he’s decided on a tried and true method — shooting. The problem, as he tells Ben, who’s trying to figure out how seriously to take any of this, is “I don’t like guns.” In order to minimize actual contact with a gun, Jay opts for “self-guided . . . programmable,” bullets, bullets that you program, he explains, by “marinating” them. You just “put the bullets in a box along with a photograph of the person you wanted to shoot and they were able to seek that person out.” Jay’s got some bullets marinating, even as he and Ben speak, in a jar with a picture of Bush in it.
It seems Jay conceived of assassinating Bush while working as a roofer in Birmingham. As his brain was being “sauteed” by the hot sun, he decided: “I want my life to count for something.” He had plenty of time to refine the idea during other stints as day laborer, including a recent job in Maine as a lobsterman that he quit because the sight of “one too may lobsters” made him queasy about what went on in “those cold heads down in the murk at the bottom of the bay.”
He’s almost as queasy about his own thought process, and where they have led him. “I made a bollix of my life,” he admits. (Ben, gently correcting his friend’s off-kilter usage and logic suggests, “You mean you’ve bollixed it up?”) Jay admits he drove a lover away because he “ranted and raved too much.” He estranged his wife, losing custody of his kids, in much the same way.
Full of self-doubt, Jay falls for every conspiracy theory that comes his way. As he sees it, everything’s tied together — Vietnamese victims of napalm bombing, depressing decor at Wal-Mart, abstract art — and “everything’s political.” Everything points back to the “greedy meddlers” in control of the United States who lead invasions into Vietnam and Iraq, and “don’t know the first thing about the countries we’re dealing with.” (Ben says: “Generally we know the first thing, but not the second and third.”)
What really puts Jay over the edge is a story about a checkpoint in Iraq manned by American troops who open fire on a Land Rover coming toward them, even though the vehicle is quite obviously packed with Iraqi civilians trying to flee a war zone. Jay chokes up as he tells Ben about one survivor, a mother who said, “I saw the heads of my two little girls come off … my two little girls.” Because of that checkpoint, Jay says, “the desire for justice just starts moving through me. It’s like a huge paddle wheel, it just churns up all this foam and fury. VENGEANCE.”
Admittedly paranoid, frequently unemployed, Jay is a lone gunman who can barely load a gun, a Lee Harvey Oswald with fever dreams about a rifle. He’s got a soft heart, it’s true, but that wouldn’t even fully qualify him as a bleeding heart liberal: He’s really conservative, Jay announces — pro-life and anti-abortion. In fact, in his view, liberals are the reason the likes of G.W. Bush get elected; by defending baby killing abortionists liberals drive sensible Americans straight into the arms of the right.
Not to worry: Jay’s magic bullets will set things right.
Ben freaks at one point. Just the fact that he’s listening to Jay, instead of calling the cops, could mean he’s going to get nailed as an accomplice. “We’re both going to Guantanamo Bay,” he says, in panic. Jay responds: “Gitmo, hell — we’re going to Abu Ghraib.” Ben is a Jay with more balance and more to lose — a wife, a kid, and a job (teaching history). In fact, Ben sounds much like Nicholson Baker might, if, Baker had applied himself to the study of American foreign policy. And why wouldn’t Baker? After all, he’s written at length about everything from cuff-links to library card catalogs. In Checkpoint, he matures into a real policy wonk.
Ben agrees with most of Jay’s opinions and suspicions, but just doesn’t have it in him to be so strident; nor do his fantasies gel around thoughts of murder. Jay says Bush has “forfeited” his right to be considered a human being. Ben disagrees; he sees Bush’s awkward humanity shine through at odd times. For example, when the President is on the verge of flubbing a question, Ben detects “a second of panic, his brow furrows, and then — ah! — he thinks of a word that he can plug in there. A big presidential word. He says it, and he flashes that childish smile of relief. It’s a little moment of pride — ‘I made it, guys.'”
In the end, nobody gets shot or shipped off to Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. Jay vents as much as he has to. Then Ben leads him out of the hotel room. He’s taking Jay home with him. He’ll be his brother’s keeper for a while.
Baker’s modest and idiosyncratic fictions often evoke wildly disproportionate responses. Amid much chortling and ballyhoo, the media reported President Clinton had bought Vox, Baker’s tale about phone sex, for Monica Lewinsky. Michiko Kakutani, New York Times book reviewer and self-appointed guardian of various literary proprieties, sounded like she would like to have Baker torn apart for The Fermata, his amusing novel about a man with the magical ability to stop time so as to affectionately inspect the bodies of women.
And if you happened to have suffered through Leon Wieseltier’s recent bloated response to Checkpoint in The NY Times Book Review, you might have gotten the impression Baker was the second coming of Charley Manson, if not Pol Pot. Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, was so offended by the subject of Baker’s book it appears he didn’t bother to finish it; if he did, he wouldn’t have written that the novel ends with the sinister possibility that “the president is [still] really in danger” from Jay. Wieseltier fancies that his review is a plea for civility and respect, but he’s the one with the really bad manners. He calls Checkpoint a “scummy little book.”
Don’t be bullied. To put it in terms even Wieseltier might understand, Checkpoint is a sane, touching, altogether civilized study of political frazzlement in a very polarized time.
Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, American Prospect, and the Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to the Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.