Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint
(Knopf · hardcover · $15.99)
Checkpoint has received a lot of press over the last couple months, mainly because it revolves around a gimmick that will probably prove lucrative for its opportunistic author this election year. Nicholson Baker's thin new novel revolves around one man's ridiculous plan to assassinate George W. Bush.
Most of us have pondered killing a president at some point or another, right? For some of us, the victim of these violent, fleeting fantasies might've been Clinton. For others, it might've been Nixon or Carter or Reagan or Papa Bush. Given the degree of incompetence and arrogance in the current administration, I'm sure there are literally hundreds of thousands of otherwise upstanding American citizens who've considered getting all Lee Harvey Oswald on Dubya's ass. It goes without saying.
It's such a childish and ludicrous fantasy, though, that the idea pops in and out of the brain before it even has a chance to register. Which is a good thing, of course—mainly because we don't need a bunch of wackos running around trying to ice the president. It's unseemly, for one thing. It's also true that killing the president is literally pointless. I mean, why make a martyr out of someone you despise?
Baker just won't let it go, though. He's expanded the premise into a novella length diatribe against our Nimrod in Chief. The bottom line is the gimmick just isn't interesting enough to sustain a 10-line poem, let alone a whole novel.
Set in a Washington D.C. hotel room, Checkpoint consists entirely of a dialog between two old high school chums, Jay and Ben. Fed up with Bush's endless false excuses for going to war in Iraq, Jay confesses to his friend that he's decided to kill him. Ben spends most of the book trying to talk him out of it. The back and forth discussion provides Baker with a transparent forum for presenting his own ideas about the many sins of the Bush administration.
Even without Jay's admission that he wants to use voodoo bullets, remote control saw blades and scorpions to do the dirty deed, it's hard to take this book or its flimsy, half-baked premise seriously. As a story, Checkpoint is so thin it barely exists. As an idiosyncratic political tract, it's painfully simpleminded. Baker doesn't care much about his characters. They're simply vehicles for expounding his own boilerplate leftwing thoughts on Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz and the rest of that evil neocon cabal. I gather the book is supposed to be funny. Mostly, it isn't.
I did learn a handful of interesting factoids. The U.S., for example, really did use napalm—now euphemistically called Mark 77—during the invasion of Iraq. And no one should worry that the book will inspire some troubled soul to make a real-life attempt on the president. Baker makes the absurdity of Jay's quixotic plan all too clear.
Still, that doesn't excuse the monotony of the whole project. The gimmick has worked, of course, in a commercial sense, grabbing the book and its author lots of undeserved attention. I'm sure Checkpoint will make Baker quite a few bucks. I just wish there was some point to it all.