Give Nicholson Baker this much: He knows how to grab onto the national consciousness and squeeze.
“Vox” (1992), a 176-page, hot-pink transcript of an erotic telephone conversation, dragged the notion of phone sex into the mainstream and figured in the Clinton-Lewinsky mess. “The Fermata” (1994) made explicit lewdness into just another latter-day plot device.
Now, just when you thought the Michael Moore brouhaha was ebbing and we could all settle down to an August of watching “The Manchurian Candidate” and listening to the presidential candidates trade insults, the literary community has produced its own campaign-season flashpoint: Baker’s taut — and fictional — meditation on one man’s desire to kill George W. Bush.
The deeply unsettling “Checkpoint” (Knopf, $15.95), just 115 pages with a red-and-black bullseye target on the cover, takes the form of a spare, almost Socratic dialogue captured on a digital recorder between two friends, Ben and Jay. Their tension: Jay is determined to do away with the president. An appalled Ben doesn’t want him to.
Ben is summoned to a hotel room to see his friend and is let in on the scheme. What follows is an astonishing, often uncomfortable conversation about a topic that — particularly in these jumbled days — is pretty risky even to be discussing. The very reference in the text to “a Bush-seeking bullet” is enough to make a reader look over his shoulder to see who’s watching.
This, of course, is part of the point.
“Sometimes you reach a point where you realize that millions of tiny individual decisions are condensed into one man,” Jay tells Ben. “That’s what I’m up against.”
As usual, Baker’s prose is — forgive the pun — dead-on. Like a hyper-urban David Mamet, he has demonstrated a distinctive talent for capturing the cadence and wry wit of the modern intelligentsia in conversation — the literary equivalent of drinking a double-fudge protein shake on the run.
In recent years, Baker has undertaken everything from a wink-nudge blend of pathos and bathos (“The Fermata,” the smart, ribald meditation on what it would be like if one man could stop time to live out his sexual fantasies) to a meticulous meditation of digital America’s rush to abandon its paper-and-document culture (“Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper”).
But “Checkpoint” is something entirely different. Whether he shares the anti-Bush outrage or not (it seems pretty clear that he does), Baker manages to channel it into his extended dialogue in a manner that fumes without boiling over into something overwrought.
“I wrote ‘Checkpoint’ because a lot of people felt a kind of powerless, seething fury when President Bush took the country to war,” the author said in a statement last month. “I wanted to capture the specificity of that rage.”
That he does. Jay’s musings straddle moral outrage and mental instability, never veering too far into either. As a character represented only by his utterances, he is a spokesman for what could happen. Ben — sometimes bewildered, sometimes intrigued — is our representative in the piece. He reacts as we would: “You’re scaring me, man. Let me see your pupils.”
As a work of fiction, it’s hard to tell exactly what “Checkpoint” is. Though its text is seeded with dead-on research, is it muckraking? A case could be made for that. But in the last analysis it’s something else, an offshoot of mainstream literature executed in a way that is Baker’s specialty. Repugnant though it often feels, “Checkpoint” is a ripped-from-the-headlines docudrama for the printed page, a timely and tense screed for a divided country hurtling toward who knows where.
Its effectiveness lies in the use of a raft of real references — real news events, real quotations, real deaths of real Iraqis sown into the dialogue. And whether you share the outrage about Iraq and Bush or not, that’s where Baker’s genius arises and is revealed — as a master propagandist for the anti-Bush camp.
Because in the end, the idea of killing the president isn’t the point; it’s merely a plot device. The true role of “Checkpoint” is as an extended indictment, a vessel for chronicling the crimes that the main character — and, by extension, Baker — believes that Bush & Co. have committed.
Baker slips in his most incendiary material in incidental remarks, and we’re so wrapped up in the shiny high-ticket item — my God! this guy’s writing about assassinating the president — that the other stuff is just internalized as part of the ride.
Readers of “Checkpoint” may walk away from it outraged or provoked, entertained or disgusted. They may want to give Baker the Pulitzer or they may want to call in the Secret Service. But they’ll all have a better window into why the people who despise the Bush administration and want to turn it out in November feel the way they do.