A Novel's Plot Against the President
Baker's fiction is written like a script for a two-man play. It is satirical at some points, serious at others. There are fanciful flourishes and fierce, furious fits of anger.
The critically admired Baker is a master of written-from-a-weird-angle fiction. His novel "Vox" was basically a phone-sex conversation. And "The Mezzanine" is a 135-page meditation on an escalator ride.
In "Checkpoint," the main character, Jay, rants and rages against Bush. He says he hasn't felt so much hostility against any other president -- not Nixon, not Reagan.
Of Bush, Jay says: "He is beyond the beyond. What he's done with this war. The murder of the innocent. And now the prisons. It's too much. It makes me so angry. And it's a new kind of anger, too."
He is outraged that the United States armed forces have used napalm-like bombs in Iraq. He says: "It's improved fire jelly -- it's even harder to put out than the stuff they used in Vietnam. And Korea. And Germany. And Japan. It just has another official name. Now it's called Mark 77. I mean, have we learned nothing? Mark 77! I'm going to kill that bastard."
He uses expletives to identify the president. At one point he says, "He's one dead armadillo."
Much of the book is serious polemic, based on Baker's reporting. The title, "Checkpoint," comes from a story that Jay read in the Sydney Morning Herald about a Shiite family of 17 that was seeking safe haven in southern Iraq in 2003. At a checkpoint south of Karbala, U.S. forces opened fire on the family's Land Rover. Several family members died; two young girls were decapitated by the gunfire. Jay chokes up when recounting the story to Ben.
Some of the ways Jay envisions killing the president are ludicrous. One is radio-controlled flying saws that "look like little CDs but they're ultrasharp and they're totally deadly, really nasty."
Another is a remote-controlled boulder made of depleted uranium.
"You're going to squash the president?" Ben asks Jay.
But Jay also has a gun and some bullets. And Ben realizes at one point that even if Jay is crazy, he is still talking about killing a sitting president. "If the FBI and the Secret Service . . . come after me because I've been hanging out with you in a hotel room before you make some crazy attempt on the life of the president, I'm totally cooked," Ben says. "Yes, you were talking a lot of delusional gobbledygook about homing bullets, but basically your intent was clear. I'll have to say that. I'm scared."
Jay calls Bush an "unelected [expletive] drunken OILMAN" who is "squatting" in the White House and "muttering over his prayer book every morning."
He calls Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "rusted hulks" and "zombies" who have "fought their way back up out of the peat bogs where they've been lying, and they're stumbling around with grubs scurrying in and out of their noses and they're going, 'We -- are -- your -- advisers.' "
Cheney, Jay says, is "hunched, man, the corruption has completely hunched and gnarled him. His mouth is pulled totally over on one side of his face."
The novel, says Knopf spokesman Paul Bogaards, "is a portrait of an anguished protagonist pushed to extremes. Baker is using the framework and story structure as a narrative device to express the discontent many in America are feeling right now."
Bogaards says: "It is not the first time a novelist has chosen fiction to express their point of view about American society or politics. Upton Sinclair did it. So did John Steinbeck. Nick Baker does it with more nerve and fewer pages."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company