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Sunday, August 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Book Review
"Checkpoint": Giving voice to political outrage of times

By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times book critic

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The plot of "Checkpoint" couldn't be simpler. Two lifelong friends — one of them with a history of domestic and psychological troubles, the other more grounded and secure in his family and professional life — meet in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. It is Jay who, after drifting from odd job to odd job, has arranged the meeting. Ben, a college historian, has driven hours to help Jay through what he assumes is just another crackup.

But Jay, after switching on a tape recorder, has a surprise for his old friend: "I'm going to assassinate the president."

Ben's horrified response: "Tell me this is one of your little flippancies."

What follows is a 100-page wrangle between the two men over George W. Bush's record in office (they both believe it's criminal) and Bush's just deserts (here they oppose each other). Their wrangle is interlarded with disarmingly ordinary inquiries about each other's families, hobbies and work — Ben's attempt to steer Jay back to stable ground.

"Checkpoint"

by Nicholson Baker
Knopf, 115 pp., $15.95

Everything we learn about the men is conveyed to us through what they say (Baker's self-imposed constraint — absolutely no expository passages — serves him well here). One man is clearly sane, the other is just as clearly "a bit ragged around the edges." One tipoff: Jay's preferred methods of assassination include "radio-controlled flying saws."

Yet the struggle between the two isn't as cut-and-dried as you might suppose. Jay isn't the standard lefty you'd assumed him to be (he's anti-choice, for one thing). Ben is in almost as much despair about the country as Jay. To Jay's angry contention that "We're just a bunch of greedy meddlers who don't know the first thing about the countries we're dealing with," Ben's reply is: "Generally we know the first thing, but not the second and third." To Jay's repeated insistence that he's going to kill Bush, Ben's argument is, "You want this wastebasket of a man to become a martyr?" (The anti-Bush invective gets considerably more profane than that.)

So what's Baker up to? Is this agit-prop fiction? Is it a polemic?

In a recent interview with Newsweek, Baker revealed he wrote the novel's first draft during the siege of Fallujah in April: "It was as if I was mourning the war, the stupidity and the wastefulness of what we did. There was no other way to deal with this than to take on the most extreme and the most horrifying response, and see why somebody would consider that, and, ultimately, why it's wrong."

At the same time, Baker distanced himself not just from Jay's views ("I don't actually think it would be such a hot idea for somebody to assassinate the president") but from both characters in the novel. "I don't think I should stand behind any part of the book," he remarked. "These are the miseries, these are the doubts that you have. I had Jay say them as forcefully as I could, because I think the left has to think about this a little more carefully."

Certainly "Checkpoint" is an angry book. But it's also a very slippery one. Reading it is a little like holding a wriggling snake in your hands: Its fangs are out, its movements are unpredictable, its direction keeps shifting. Jay cajoles, then threatens Ben's life. Ben tries every ploy, from distraction to direct confrontation, to deflect Jay's intended course of action. The volatile nature of their conflict ensures, to my mind, that "Checkpoint" works as a novel — not Baker's best novel perhaps ("The Mezzanine" and "The Fermata" strike me as his masterpieces) but certainly a serious attempt to address feelings that are running high in our charged political atmosphere.

The most indelible image in the book has nothing directly to do with either man. It stems from an incident that took place in April 2003. An Iraqi family fleeing a war zone thought they were being waved through a U.S. military checkpoint. They waved back, started driving and came under fire. The surviving mother told a Sydney Morning Herald journalist: "I saw the heads of my two little girls come off."

This is what has put the already unstable Jay over the edge, and it's the hinted-at starting point of the novel. Still, it isn't just the one incident but the whole invasion of Iraq that has triggered Jay's plan and the book's plot. ("More than ten thousand Iraqis have been killed in this war," Jay despairs. "It's off the charts. Tanks firing on apartment blocks. Morgues and hospitals filled to capacity.")

Ben and, it seems clear, Baker agree with much of what Jay says. Yet Ben cautions against answering one kind of violence with another. "Feel murderous, by all means," Ben says to Jay. "Rage inwardly. Just don't actually attempt the murder. That's the dividing line."

"Checkpoint" comes down unmistakably on the side of civility and political process, not assassination. But it's the book's inward rage that sticks with you.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998, and has also published four novels.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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