"Checks And Balances" - Collin Kelley reviews Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint
By Nicholson Baker
Knopf, $15.95, 115 pages
Checks and Balances:
Nicholson Baker's short novel rings with
absurdity and truth
From the moment he entered public consciousness with his phone sex transcript Vox and the even raunchier The Fermata, novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker has always thrown caution to the wind. Now, Baker has delivered a totally different kind of novel, the absurd and chilling Checkpoint about one man's plot to assassinate President George W. Bush.
At just 115 pages, Checkpoint should be read in one-sitting. It's a tape recorded transcript between Jay, the would-be assassin, and his old friend Ben, who is desperately trying to talk Jay out of the deed even as he is lulled by Jay's often unarguable facts. The transcript it labeled "May, 2004 -- Adele Hotel and Suites, Washington D.C." To say Checkpoint is timely is an understatement.
Checkpoint has created more ink in the press than is printed on its actual pages. There's the conservative talk show drones who believe Baker should be rounded up by the Secret Service for even talking about assassinating the sitting president. Of course, that charge is just a smokescreen to blanket the damning charges that both Jay and Ben level against Bush, Cheney and those currently in power. Consider it a more succinct companion to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911, but with a more balanced approach. While Baker condemns Bush and the war in Iraq, he doesn't let past administrations off easy either.
Jay, who has lost his job and his family, wanders from state to state working menial jobs. He's a modern day Tom Joad and the grapes of his wrath are sitting in the White House. Ben is a college professor, who is working on a book about the Cold War, and takes photographs to help him see things in better focus. Ben remains the voice of reason, trying to thwart Jay's plans by recommending other, often hilarious, ways for his pal to take out his frustrations.
Jay has a number of nifty ways up his sleeve to dispatch "George W. Tumbleweed," including radio controlled flying saws and bullets that must be "marinated" in a box with a photo of the intended victim. These absurdist touches put the proposed assassination in the same league as Wylie E. Coyote's attempts to bump off the Road Runner. It literally takes the edge off the reprehensible idea of cold-blooded murder, but this framework is a double-edged sword. While Baker makes you laugh on one page, he sobers the reader up with cold-hard facts the next.
Jay and Ben agree that America lost its way after it dropped the bombs on Japan to end World War II. Every president since FDR has further corrupted the system, dabbled in illegal activities, killed innocents in the name of war and put democracy on the skids.
While Bush is the intended target of the flying saws and magic bullets, Baker's condemnation of Vice-president Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne (who sat on the board of directors of Lockheed-Martin, the builders of bombs and planes) is painted in even broader strokes. Cheney is power hungry, corrupt demigod who started his career in the Vietnam era, advised George Sr. during the first Gulf War, and has been a puppet master ever since, while making a fortune off defense contracts from Halliburton. Jay admits that Bush is only "nominally in charge," but has allowed advisors like his father, Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice to influence him into war in Iraq.
Baker also lobs in prescient comments on America's out-sourcing of jobs and industry that the Bush administration has allowed to go un-checked. "Pills, pickup trucks and war, that's it," Jay says in summing up all that America actually makes for itself. Ben agrees. "Asian countries don't want our debt. We have no cash, no credit, nothing to sell except weapons. We're a bankrupt, bankrupt country," Ben laments.
One of the most surprising elements is Jay's anti-abortion stance, a conservative wrench Baker throws into these liberal proceedings. Jay is outraged that Bush can order bombs dropped on innocent children in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet pander to the religious right in America by stating abortion is murder.
Toward the end of the novel, we learn the "checkpoint" from the title is tied to a newspaper article Jay read that eventually pushed him over the edge. In one of the books most sobering moments, Jay describes the true account of the murder by American soldiers at a checkpoint of an Iraqi family fleeing the war zone. The Land Rover was full of people including children. One of them waved and the soldiers misinterpreted the wave and opened fire on the car killing everyone inside. Jay breaks down as he describes the mother's anguish as she watched her two daughters decapitated by the bullets.
Ultimately, Ben sums up what both the Democrats and Republicans should remember about Bush: "...he'll be out of power eventually. Either he loses and he's out, or he wins, and then he's out a little later. Either way, his time will pass in a twinkling." While this is true, Baker also offers a compelling argument for why Bush should be out of office a little sooner than later.
© 2004 Collin Kelley
Collin Kelley is an award-winning playwright, poet, and journalist. Visit his site at http://www.collinkelley.com/.
Listen to his internet radio program, Business Of Words, at Leisure Talk Radio Network.
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