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by Nicholson Baker

Two men - Jay and Ben - sit in a Washington hotel room. Jay has called his old friend Ben there - to tell him why and how he wants to kill the President. Jay is a bit of a loser (he's lost his girlfriend, his job, his car), generally easy-going, but now he's on edge and he's angry - and he's acquired some radio-controlled flying saws, and is working on a boulder with a depleted uranium centre- but he also has a gun and bullets. Ben is the voice of liberal reason, with a job and a family. Jay switches on a tape machine, and the two men argue. Well, Ben tries feebly to reason or cajole, while Jay rants and rages about everything from the horror of what happened at that southern Iraq checkpoint where US forces opened fire on a Shiite family in a Land Rover, killing most of them, and decapitating two young girls; to the iniquities of the present administration, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al., and abortion (if they're against abortion, how come they can kill women and children?), not to mention the napalm-like substance ('improved fire jelly') used in bombs in Iraq. Their dialogue veers from chilling and serious to wacky and crazed (Bush, says Jay, is 'one dead armadillo'). Checkpoint is a novel about a man pushed to the extremes, by a writer who is clearly angry. Like Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, it takes the temperature of America just below the surface and finds it at boiling point.
Download Checkpoint epub
ISBN: 0701178191
ISBN13: 978-0701178192
Category: Literature
Subcategory: Contemporary
Author: Nicholson Baker
Language: English
Publisher: Chatto & Windus (September 1, 2004)
Pages: 128 pages
ePUB size: 1704 kb
FB2 size: 1874 kb
Rating: 4.8
Votes: 191
Other Formats: mobi docx lrf doc

Nicolson Baker dissects the angst of the liberal during the Bush era with precision. It's painful and funny to remember the details of distress thoughtful people felt about Bush's attacks on civil liberties, the Constitution and the reputation of our country abroad. In this short dialogue, two men unpack the whole ugly box of civic terrors. This gem ought to be required reading for every libertarian in our country.
When reading all the praise of Nicholson Baker's prose, on the dust jacket, and his ability to use the English language to create a satirical edge, I expected something more substantial. Apparently, this is case of reputation leading the book. There is nothing funny (except the Bush seeking Bullets), nor ironic in the text, and satire is checked in at another hotel. One cannot feel any emotional impact the ravings of Jay, as he plots to kill the bush baby in the White House. (Although, I suspect that if Shrub could read, the book just might make him catatonic.) This really is not a novel, but a one-act play.
Okay, so it's not The Fermata, but it sure has been cathartic for me these past two days (after the elction). Baker is saying what the rest of us only dare think about.
I loved it! It reads almost like a radio script - and just as fast. I finished it in 3 hours because I couldn't put it down. I'm now reading all the Baker I can find.
Probably the least controversial thing one can say about Nicholson Baker's "Checkpoint" is that it's controversial. Released at a time when the highly polarized American public was awaiting the charged 2004 election, the book's main character spews invective against the incumbent president, George W. Bush. Some four years later the public remains equally divided as yet another tense presidential election approaches. Some things never change. 2004 also saw the release of Micheal Moore's "Fahrenheit 911," a film which seemed to unify the left by showcasing President Bush and his administration at their absolute worst. Its phenomenal success prompted a catharsis of anti-Bush material. Doubtless Baker, or at least his publisher, saw an opportunity with "Checkpoint." In August, 2004 it appeared to near universal disdain (at least in the mainstream American press). Though the book isn't necessarily political, its timing, subject matter and tone probably made it difficult for many to read it otherwise. Its incendiary topic: the assassination of President Bush.

The cover of "Checkpoint" says "a novel," but it reads like a play. It could easily be performed as one (for the controversy hungry, at least). Every page contains nothing but dialogue and the occasional bracketed stage direction or sound (such as "[Click... click, click]"). Perhaps the cover should instead read "Checkpoint a dialogue." The text involves a tape recorded discussion between two main characters, Jay and Ben ("Room Service" has a few lines later on). Ben has rushed to the "Adele Hotel and Suites" in Washington, D.C. at Jay's behest. Jay soon says "I'm going to assassinate the president." Ben's initial reaction seems a bit far-fetched, but as the book continues the reader discovers that Ben has a history with Jay. Jay isn't well. He hasn't been well for a while, it seems. Plus, he's a little loopy. His assassin's weapons include a large boulder, remote controlled flying saws, and "special bullets" programmed by marinating them with a picture of the intended victim. Jay also reads blogs. From these he's collected information on what he sees as the crimes of the Bush administration. The Iraq war plays heavily here, in particular an episode at a checkpoint in which a mother witnesses her daughters killing by US forces. Jay works himself to a frenzy. Ben tries to dissuade him and threats begin (when Ben threatens to contact the authorities, Jay promises to carry out his act immediately; the story's crucible seems a little contrived, but it suffices). Ben tries to calm Jay with some of the usual palliatives: killing just leads to more killing, all presidents have been bad (he lists them since Truman; only Carter gets a "meant well"). He then has Jay pound on a picture of Bush with a hammer ("[Flump!]"). Whether this provides adequate therapy remains somewhat ambiguous. The book ends with a "[Click.]"

Following publication, a plethora of interpretations spewed from the press and public. Some excused it merely as a diatribe against President Bush a la "Fahrenheit 911." Others saw it as a critique of liberalism, likely building on the seeming "nothing-we-can-do" passivity of Ben in the face of Jay's violent outburst and Jay's iconoclastic views on abortion. A much smaller number questioned the legality of the book. Still others saw its "therapeutic" value in providing a warning to not destroy oneself by raging against the machine. The literary minded tended to dismiss the politics altogether and focus instead on the character's personalities and interactions. Baker himself insisted that the book is "not political," though he also said it was inspired by the events of the recent Iraq war. The book does read like an emotional outburst. It feels rushed and uneven in many places. But it also contains hilarious, disturbing, and moving passages; a few of which seem like harbingers of Baker's 2008 non-fiction follow-up "Human Smoke." Ultimately, the question remains: will this book continue to inspire readers situated outside the political volcano it appeared in? It seems to have disappeared, swallowed up by the 2004 election results, though criticism of the Bush administration continues unabated. Nonetheless, the book contains enough intriguing elements that in a few year's time people may read it with a new perspective. In some ways the book was too close to the historical events that surrounded it. Time may provide enough distance to judge the book by other merits. Or perhaps it will remain a product of its fervent and frenzied time, when the United States saw a degree of polarization unseen since the Civil War.
I think that people who try to take the political content of this book seriously are missing the point. The point of the book, like any good novel, is not in scoring political points but exploring the lives of the people involved in the novel. Because the political point of view of the two protagonists is contemporary, it's hard not to react to the political statements being made. Not surprisingly, then, many reviewers have considered the book as a political tract and have commented on how valid the political analysis is (maybe it helps to be Canadian).

But that's not the point: The point is seeing two people living in the United States in 2002/2003. While the protagonists do, occasionaly, make points that real political commentators make, they also make absolutely loony points. Like a David Mamet or Harold Pinter play, the pleasure in this book is the dialog (the book is all dialog), the characters, and their relationship.

When reading this book it might be worthwhile to take the long view: Assume that the protagonists are living in the time of Louis XIV and are considering assissinating the king. In that frame of mind, you wouldn't care about the politics and would only interested in the people. On that basis, I enjoyed the book. What is impressive to me is how much the author reveals about the characters and their values through the incidentals of the character's conversation. We see two people who really have given up on any hope of influencing their country's direction (or even the direction of their own lives) and who can not tell the difference between fact and supposition. They have come to the point where the only difference they believe that they can make in the public sphere is through some spasmodic dramatic action.