Thanks to Monica, who gave a copy to Bill, Nicholson Baker remains best known for Vox, his 1992 novel about a telephone conversation between a man and a woman who meet on a sex chat line. A streak of loneliness runs through Baker’s work, and like Vox, his new novel, Checkpoint, weighs the value of the smallest unit of community, two voices.
Baker’s stab at the political thriller, Checkpoint is the transcript of a recorded conversation between two old friends, Jay and Ben, who meet inside a Washington, D.C., hotel room. They haven’t seen each other in a while, and they catch up by discussing Frank Zappa and their children. After setting up a tape recorder, Jay gets their conversation started by revealing why he has summoned Ben — he plans to assassinate George W. Bush.
No post-FDR president passes this Checkpoint unscathed, but Bush trumps them all, Jay says, by restoring to power Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Wolfowitz — the most dangerous members of the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and first Bush administrations (Kissinger, a free man in the private sector, gets his due elsewhere): “It’s as if these rusted hulks, these zombies, have fought their way back up out of the peat bogs where they’ve been lying, and they’re stumbling around with grubs scurrying in and out of their noses and they’re going ‘We — are — your — advisers.’”
Jay’s indictment covers Lockheed Martin, the weapons maker that proclaims on its Web site to “help ensure peace and stability around the world,” as well as the suited pundits who chuckle genially as they report on the carnage. Less convincingly, though entertainingly, he faults abstract expressionist painting and the atmosphere of Wal-Marts: “God, that shadowless scary light that fills the place, acres of that pitiless light. ‘I confess, I shot the sheriff, please, take the light away!’” But most of all, he blames Bush:
JAY: He’s the absolute worst. He’s the broken pickle.
BEN: The broken pickle?
JAY: The one at the bottom of the jar, with the seeds swirling around it.
Jay claims to have assembled quite the arsenal for his mission: black-magic bullets, radio-controlled flying saws, and a boulder made from depleted uranium (“it’s a hundred tons of metal that just rolls, baby”). For all his nonsense, though, he isn’t crazy. He’s a familiar type — a sad crank at the end of his rope. Divorced, estranged from his children, irregularly employed, his failures and his impotence mirror the democracy that no longer cares to count all its votes. If Jay’s motivations — his desire for glory and his instinct to do his thankless part for the greater good — contradict, they resemble the paradoxes within our national character.
Ben wants to dissuade his friend, but has trouble refuting his views. There’s no arguing with Jay’s fundamental point: that bombing — which from Nagasaki to napalm (now biblically renamed Mark 77) has characterized U.S. offensives for six decades — is an indefensible act of cowardice and barbarism. Even his conviction (which few readers will share) that the pro-choice position is incompatible with leftist values disturbs because it sounds so rational. When he is able to get a word in, Ben refuses to permit Jay to dehumanize Bush.
He’s got that sudden smile that he makes when he’s answering a question. Have you seen it? It looks like he’s not sure how he’s going to finish the sentence, and there’s a second of panic, his brow furrows, and then — ah! — he thinks of a word that he can plug in there. A big presidential word. He says it, and he flashes that childish smile of relief. It’s a little moment of pride — “I made it, guys.”
Because Checkpoint essentially is a two-man play, it suffers, as Vox did, from the limits of the spoken word. Baker’s finest novels — The Mezzanine and Room Temperature especially — are non-stories that depend on the absence of plot. They derive tension from the suspension of dramatic conflict and, particularly in The Fermata, the suspension of time itself. With the clock ticking on Jay’s promise to execute Bush by the end of the day, juxtaposed against the revelations of his sad-sack backstory, Checkpoint maybe has more drama than Baker’s anti-narrative method can handle. Still, the heated dialogue produces unexpected moments of levity.
JAY: When did we last get together? Was that three years ago?
BEN: May have been. Long time.
JAY: I’m so sorry about that wheelbarrow, man.
BEN: No no no.
JAY: I felt bad, I just didn’t see it in the dark.
BEN: It’s fine, it still works. It lists a little, that’s all.
There isn’t as much airtime as usual for Baker’s unparalleled gifts as an observer of our physical world. But such talents, irrepressible, allow for Ben’s loving description of his grandmother and the sound — “fft-fft-fft” — of her tremulous hand depressing the nipple of a bug-spray can.
Some will balk at Checkpoint’s compassionate resolution, its refusal of revolution. Bakerites, however, will recognize a good omen in this election year. If one of our supreme chroniclers of mild manners can be roused to such patriotic indignation, democracy yet has a fighting chance.
Checkpoint | By NICHOLSON BAKER | Knopf | 115 pages | $16 hardcover