Are you an angry literary novelist looking to vent some righteous anger about the state of the country and grab some attention in the process? Write a quickie polemic that masquerades as a novel about killing the president. It's worked for Nicholson Baker, whose new book, Checkpoint (Knopf, $15.95) -- "a late addition to the Knopf summer list" -- has touched off a brouhaha out of all proportion to its size and merits.
The setup: It's May 2004, and an angry (young?) man named Jay has summoned his old friend Ben to a hotel room in Washington, D.C., to tell him that he's had enough of "this whole funky truckload of horror that's going on right now!" Ben tries to talk him out of it and gets dragged into a debate about Iraq, the war on terror, the Bush-Cheney gang, Lockheed-Martin, abortion rights, even the miserable state of American strip-mall architecture. "Are you really trying to tell me that you're going to kill George W. Bush because Wal-Mart is ugly?" Ben asks. "It's a contributing factor," Jay says, "it really is." With its script-like setup (see following quote) and blend of leftie outrage and oddball existential humor, Checkpoint reads like "Waiting for Godot" rewritten by the news staff of Pacifica Radio:
"Jay: 'It's helpful to have a hobby. I have a hobby too.'
"Ben: 'Jay, assassinating the president isn't a hobby.'
"Jay: 'I'm sure not getting paid for it. It's pro bono all the way.' "
Yes, that made me laugh, even though knocking off the leader of the free world is no laughing matter. (Jay doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of pulling it off.) If you are a left-leaning reader who doesn't much care for the current administration and its policies, you may well find Checkpoint more of a cathartic amusement than a source of outrage. And as speech goes, it's mighty free, which in this current climate is no small thing. As Ben tells Jay, "Feel murderous, by all means. Rage inwardly. Just don't actually attempt the murder. That's the dividing line."
-- Jennifer Howard