There’s very little pussyfooting around in Nicholson Baker’s newest novel, Checkpoint. Weighing in at a thin 115 pages, Baker doesn’t bother with niceties orwaste time preparing his readers for the subject at hand. Thesubject at hand is the assassination of President Bush, and Nicholson’sutter lack of fear in presenting it makes the act of reading this novelfeel more than a little subversive.
The tiny tome is a novel really only on Baker’s say-so - since hepresents the story in the form of a transcript, it reads a lot morelike a stage play than prose. The conversation recorded isbetween two old friends. Jay, a somewhat delusionaldown-on-his-luck day laborer has asked his old friend Ben to come to ahotel room in DC, and to bring a tape recorder. Ben obliges,believing that his friend is in some sort of crisis. Thus beginsthe story - with the click of the tape recorder - Jay wants to explainhis reasons for his impending assassination attempt.
The sparse style is reminiscent of David Mamet’s assertion, born ofhis experience writing radio plays, that a good playwright needsnothing but the spoken lines. No stage directions, noscene-setting, no character backgrounds - Mamet feels that if it can’tbe conveyed in the dialogue, it has no business being on a goodwriter’s page. By this standard, Nicholson Baker is one of thebest living American writers.
Baker is also in top form here because he denies us any easyjudgments on the characters. Jay, the would-be-assassin isdelusional, but some of his arguments are clearly cogent. Hispersonal politics are tricky - he’s not the left-wing nut job you mighttypecast into such a role. And Ben’s reasons are muddled - doeshe believe the arguments he’s making against the assassination, or ishe chiefly concerned with not becoming an accomplice?
The length and pace of this book makes it a tour de force. Bytaking on the assassination taboo head-on, Baker is able to craft fromit a deft framework to discuss American empire, apathy, and morality.
- MSNBC - Target: The President: Nicholson Baker talks about his controversial new novel, ‘Checkpoint’
- read more by Matthew Poe at midnight howl