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Shortly after Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 steamrolled into theaters, The Onion ran one of its funniest headlines in years.
"Nation’s Liberals Suffering from Outrage Fatigue," the banner read.
It’s all good and well to poke fun of people tuning out for a bit, but what would happen if someone allowed their political outrage to continue escalating? Nicholson Baker explores one worse case scenario in Checkpoint, a brief but provocative little Frisbee of a novel about political frustration.
As in his infamous 1992 novel, Vox, Checkpoint is told entirely through dialogue. Two middle-aged men named Ben and Jay are talking in a Washington, DC–area hotel. An ex-drinker who has been on a long slide toward failure, Jay has summoned his friend Ben for a chat. He gets the ball rolling by unloading this bombshell: "I’m going to assassinate the president."
Plenty of political thrillers have revolved around plots to assassinate a president, but the odd thing about Checkpoint is how real and how current are the frustrations which push Jay over the edge. Sure, this is a short book, but it references everything from Halliburton to the odd disappearance of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
The novel’s title has a double meaning. On a literal level, checkpoint refers to a recent incident in Iraq where a family fleeing a war zone was shot at because they waved to soldiers as they drove up to a security checkpoint. Two young girls were killed in the shooting, and their grandfather, too. He had worn a pinstripe suit to look more American.
Checkpoint also refers to the mental state of mind one reaches after prolonged exposure to moral outrage. Baker has described the internal life of his characters in almost forensic detail in the past. Here, however, everything his characters think makes it out of their heads in this long rambling conversation.
As in Vox, this leads to some funny non sequiturs — as when Jay veers off into a tangent about balsa airplanes — but it also provokes some moments where one’s glad free speech is defended in America. For instance, Jay rationalizes his mission as a kind of violent check and balance on political power. "If you as the guy in charge allow killing to go forward, if you in fact promote killing . . . if you say, Go, men, launch the planes, start the bombing, shock and awe the living shit out of that ancient city — you are going to create assassins like me."
Jay’s gripes with the President are actually very similar to Michael Moore’s. During his conversation with Ben, Jay begins with the war in Iraq, decrying the use of napalm, the death of innocent civilians. And then, like Moore, he snowballs this legitimate human rights complaint into a giant catch-all of gripes, roaming from Cheney’s corruption to Rumsfeld’s chin to the president’s annoying trademark smirk. He even tosses in one of Moore’s most dubious claims, which was the urge to profit off an oil pipeline across Afghanistan.
This gumbo of fact and speculation will certainly make Checkpoint a controversial book — the reaction to which will no doubt eclipse its literary controversy. But the questions of craft at stake here are real, too. Is a 113-page conversation between two men a novel? Given the smaller and smaller numbers of Americans actually reading novels, will this book make a difference? Can a novel that is this timely actually last?
In all likeliness, your answer to these two questions will be determined by which candidate you plan to vote for come fall. Bush lovers will probably want to fling this Frisbee right back to the bookstore. Kerry fans, however, will clutch it to their chest and find it a brilliant piece of writing — and no doubt applaud Baker’s gutsiness in writing about this scenario.
Which brings us back to the act; anyone thinking this is somehow a prelude to an actual occurrence should read a little further. How does Jay plan to do it? For starters, he’s got smart bullets which need to simply marinate near a photograph of the target and they’ll find their way to him. If that doesn’t work, he’s going to unleash a giant ball bearing and simply roll it down the hill and crush Bush. No need to worry, Dubya won’t have to guard against copy-cat crimes. On the other hand, if a few more voters feel like Jay does, he might just find himself a little behind that eight ball, er, ball bearing, come November.
John Freeman can be reached at email@example.com
Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint is available in local bookstores starting Aug. 10.
Issue Date: August 6 - 12, 2004
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