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Modern life, a motive for murder

Checkpoint A Novel Nicholson Baker Alfred A. Knopf: 120 pp., $15.95

August 08, 2004|P.J. O'Rourke | P.J. O'Rourke, a correspondent for the Atlantic, is the author of numerous books, most recently "Peace Kills: America's Fun New Imperialism."

At the moment, in America, there is an almost murderous rage against the president among a certain kind of people. Or so I understand. I haven't been to any documentary screenings, pop concerts or book publication parties lately. Nicholson Baker -- the mischievous and obsessive author of such deliberate, even obscene, provocations as "Vox" and "The Fermata" -- it seems, has. In his newest fiction, "Checkpoint," he takes two of that certain kind of people and puts them in a Washington hotel room. From the phrase "almost murderous rage," Baker subtracts, for dramaturgy's sake, the word "almost." The first protagonist intends to assassinate George W. Bush. The second is appalled at the prospect -- appalled, that is, at the prospect of the first protagonist being shot by the Secret Service and of himself losing his job and going to jail for conspiracy. "The country has no need of this service," says the more reasonable type of a certain kind of people. And then they -- as their kind do -- talk for more than 100 pages.

What to call them? They aren't leftists. Their critique of the capitalist system doesn't go beyond, "I mean, are you really trying to tell me that you're going to kill George W. Bush because Wal-Mart is ugly?"

"It's a contributing factor, it really is."

I won't call these characters liberals. An American can be described by all five definitions of liberal in the third edition of Webster's International Dictionary without quitting the GOP or even getting next to John McCain. The characters in "Checkpoint" are the self-appointed and self-important champions of all good opinions and progressive, reformist ideas. In 1884, they were known as Mugwumps. Today perhaps they should be known as Smugwumps. One is tempted to call them "Ben and Jerry," and Baker almost does. They are "Jay" and "Ben" -- pals since high school, now about 50, and more (Jay) or less (Ben) losers.

Jay is crazy in the way that is celebrated by contemporary entertainment and culture.

JAY: We've lost every war we've fought. Winning is losing. We lost the Second World War.... We bombed all those places.... [T]he crime of it began to work on us afterward, it began chewing on our spleens and rotting us out inside....

Ben is paralyzed by moral conflict in the way that is celebrated by writers about contemporary entertainment and culture.

BEN: You want this wastebasket of a man to become a martyr?

"Checkpoint" is presented as a transcript of the conversation that Jay and Ben are recording for no discernible reason except to let the author off the hooks of omniscience and point of view. The effect is of reading a play, specifically "Waiting for Godot." The stark set is provided by the semi-luxury hotel room. ("JAY: You know that you can almost see the White House from this window?") The tramps are, in this case, bums of the intelligentsia. ("BEN: You haven't been teaching at all? JAY: That kind of ended.... BEN: I co-teach an honors seminar every spring.") And much time in "Checkpoint" is spent waiting for room service.

Room service eventually comes. On the whole, Baker improves upon Samuel Beckett's work. Baker's jokes will make people, rather than theater majors, laugh.

JAY: No, this time, this war, that he imposed on the world, when the whole world said no to him so CLEARLY, in the streets, in every country, this war that he forced on humanity -- this war will be avenged!

BEN: Okay, but first, how about we get a bite to eat.

Baker's absurdism is more poignantly absurd. Jay's murder weapons include "radio-controlled flying saws" he bought from someone he met in a bar and "homing bullets," which, if placed in a box with a photograph of the person to be shot, will "seek that person out."

Furthermore, the worldview that Baker demolishes for the audience is much broader than that held by Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon. And the nonsense, rather than being labored, is produced simply by airing the thoughts that a certain kind of people have.

JAY: You know, I'm starting to see now that all the totally off-the-wall conspiracy theories, all of them are true. It's not just that Roosevelt knew about Pearl Harbor ... you've got AIDS developed as part of those germ-warfare experiments in Africa, those monkeys that escaped.

BEN: Jumping species, well, yeah, there's some evidence ....

JAY: That's definitely CIA. And then there's the whole thing where we dropped bombs full of bugs and germs on the North Koreans....

Jay destroys the Weltanschauung by following logic to its logical conclusion; Ben, by refusing to.

BEN: Well, what about Dick Cheney? Are we going to kill him, too?

JAY: We certainly should.

BEN: He's smarter, he's more corrupt....

JAY: But what do you mean, "we"? That's what you said: "Are we going to kill him?"

BEN: Yeah, well, by "we" I mean "you."

Baker, in what seems to be a thought experiment, gives Jay anti-abortion principles: "Hey, this is a vulnerable innocent creature and we can't just suck it out of its burrow and let it die on a steel tray."

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