It’s May 2004, and two old friends, Jay and Ben, meet in a Washington, D.C., hotel room. They eat bagel chips and drink wine as Jay rants about his plans to assassinate George W. Bush. ”I’ve got some radio-controlled flying saws, they look like little CDs, but they’re ultrasharp and they’re totally deadly, really nasty,” he announces. He’s also developed a boulder that has ”a giant ball bearing in the center of it so that it rolls wherever I tell it to.”
Ben, who passes for the voice of reason, tries to talk him out of the crime with some dubious logic of his own: ”You want this waste-basket of a man to be a martyr?”
Their dialogue, some 115 puerile pages of anti-Bush hysteria, constitutes the sum total of Checkpoint, Nicholson Baker’s seventh novel. What’s most shocking about this gaga wisp of a book isn’t the putative sensationalism of its silly, tasteless premise. (Radio-controlled flying saws? Please.) It’s that one of our most, sparkling, witty, and original writers has produced something so artless, clumsy, and stupefyingly bad. Arriving on the eve of the Republican National Convention, ”Checkpoint” seems guaranteed to become an overhyped political event. It’s also a depressing and mystifying literary event.
Baker has always been an oddball miniaturist, a brainy, bearded eccentric who has written skinny, delicate, esoteric, and improbably fascinating novels built around riding an escalator, lighting a fire, bottle-feeding a baby, and, of course, talking on a phone-sex chat line in 1992’s infamous, cringe-inducing ”Vox.” (That book, which Monica Lewinsky memorably gave as a gift to Bill Clinton in 1997, also marked the author’s last cameo in real-world presidential politics.) Baker can be solipsistic, trivial, and exquisitely smutty, but he’s never been crude, and he’s never been dull.
Until now. ”Checkpoint” makes Michael Moore’s ”Fahrenheit 9/11” look like a work of Jamesian subtlety and nuance. There isn’t a graceful or interesting sentence in this blunt, plotless, obscenity-laden screed. Baker wrote ”Checkpoint,” according to his publisher, because a lot of people felt a kind of powerless seething fury when President Bush took the country to war. Baker said in a statement several weeks ago, ”How do you react to something that you think is hideously wrong? How do you keep it from driving you nuts?”
Apparently you don’t. Far from turning all that seething, heartfelt fury into an illuminating work of fiction, Baker has merely slapped it down, raw and ugly, on the page.