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Nicholson Baker: Checkpoint



Author: Nicholson Baker
Publisher: Knopf

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Whatever detrimental effect George W. Bush's presidency has had on America and the rest of the world, it hasn't hurt the publishing industry. The current proliferation of anti-Bush books makes the '90s boom in Clinton-bashing tomes look like a warm-up. But whatever their worth and relevance, and whatever the outcome of this fall's election—which may necessitate a fresh crop of anti-Bush literature—they'll eventually look about as relevant as last week's chicken dinner. And so will Checkpoint, the new novel by Vox author Nicholson Baker.

In Checkpoint, old friends Jay and Ben meet in a hotel room, at Jay's insistence. Jay has a plan: He wants to kill President Bush. Over 115 pages, he explains why, in a dialogue interrupted only by the arrival of room service. Since the plan involves, at different points, flying saws, a remote-controlled boulder, and bullets with the magical ability to seek out their target, it's safe to assume that Jay has fallen off his rocker. Checkpoint doesn't care about how he's lost his mind so much as what's made him lose it. "We've reached the point of intolerability," Jay claims toward the novel's end, by which point Baker has long established that Bush has driven "us" there.

Less a character than a mouthpiece for spasms of anti-Bush sentiment—the word "rhetoric" implies too much thought—Jay will probably leave a lot of readers identifying with that "we." He speaks for those who watched angrily and hopelessly as war with Iraq went from theoretical to inevitable to disastrous. But apart from an isolated passage here and there (such as an observation about the Bush administration's lack of humility "before the mystery of a foreign country"), he speaks with little eloquence or sense. Anyone needing further persuasion won't find it here.

Jay's party-line-eschewing anti-abortion sentiments seem less like a legitimate part of his character than a half-hearted attempt at psychological complexity. A cardboard liberal everyman, Ben also barely registers as a character. Consequently, Checkpoint reads like a work written quickly for the moment, tapped out in a fit of pique. A typical line: "You think of the war in the streets over there and of him tearing down what's left of the country, and you feel murderous, just MURDEROUS!" Someone get that man a blog.