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Checkpoint
Nicholson Baker
Knopf
115 pages
Grade: B-

Thursday, September 30, 2004
Copyright © Las Vegas Mercury

Books: Checkpoint By Nicholson Baker

Burning Bush

By John Ziebell

The most tiresome quality of pundits, no matter where they squat relative to our nation's so-called political center, is righteous indignation, which is shrill and silly coming from the opposing camp and frustrating from one's own. As our leadership rises to new levels of mediocrity, self-appointed monitors demand outrage from an electorate that rewards them with apathy. You can lead a voter to reason, arbiters from either side would agree, but you can't make it think. This is the cultural quagmire in which Checkpoint, the new novel by gifted prose and fiction writer Nicholson Baker, elects to spin its narrative wheels--or preach to the choir, if you prefer.

The narrative takes the shape of a transcript of a recorded conversation between two longtime friends in a Washington, D.C., hotel room, interrupted by clicks and thumps and the brief intrusion of a room-service waiter. Both appear to be in early middle age, insightful and obviously well-educated. Jay, separated from his family and emotionally adrift, has become a vagabond day laborer; Ben, a professor, escapes the present by investing his time in Cold War research. The dialogue between them begins elliptically but engages us in fairly short order:

Jay: Okay. Uh, I'm going to--okay, I'll just say it. Um.

Ben: What is it?

Jay: I'm going to assassinate the president.

As the conversation continues, we realize Jay is too ineffectual to literally kill anyone, even before we're introduced to his rather fantastic arsenal of remote-control blades, magic bullets and a hammer. "He's one dead armadillo," Jay says of Bush Junior at one point, his avowed intentions sounding like the kind of jibe made by a man who is discussing a rhetorical position rather than a homicidal design. The book never demands the actual suspension of disbelief we expect from most novels; the undescribed Jay and Ben lack depth as characters, but do adequate service as vehicles used to deliver diatribes against the Bush administration, the military, neo-imperialism, Wal-Mart and pervasive corruption. And Baker's overall criticism is fairly evenhanded in that no president in the last five decades gets a clean bill of health, ethically or intellectually.

Checkpoint is real in the way Candide was for Voltaire's contemporaries, a polemic couching itself in the guise of fictional dialogue--and though we're willing to grant many of its tenets regarding our political and commercial institutions, it might have been more successful had it been as satirically acerbic. Not that the book is without humor; Jay has a unique take on abstract painting, for example, a practice he states was sponsored by the CIA, "promoted by spooks...to prove how tolerant our democracy is of ugliness." And while Baker is not the first to note zombie characteristics in Cheney and Rumsfeld, the vision of them as undead arising from a peat bog is pretty amusing.

Jay and Ben rehash much of the sentiment you could hear anywhere that liberals gather over imported beers to bemoan our failure to demand redress for the transgressions of the Bush administration, though their conversation is rich in background information and historical detail that might be fresh to some. The only truly unexpected note is Ben's brief but passionate diatribe against abortion "choice," a morally indefensible position that, in his view, crippled the liberal cause when it was adopted as a key element of the platform.

The novel's title comes from a news story about one of those tragic blunders that haunt any armed conflict; American soldiers misread the intentions of refugees approaching a checkpoint and open fire, killing two small girls and their grandfather. A year later, Jay still hasn't come to terms with the scenario. When we think of how these stories most generally reach us--sanitized video clips, banal voiceovers--it's awfully optimistic to imagine someone being so deeply affected. Hopefully, the book will reach an audience less cynical than me--and they will vote.


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