Ben is a historian, and Jay is an out of work ex-teacher. Friends since high school, the two men meet at a Washington hotel. Jay has something on his mind and has summoned Ben to help him sort things out. With a tape recorder running, his intentions soon become clear: “I’m going to assassinate the president.” What passes between the two men in the wake of Jay’s declaration is “Checkpoint,” Nicholson Baker’s passionately caustic diatribe against the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.

As in “Vox,” Baker’s notorious exploration of phone sex, “Checkpoint” serves up a single conversation, impersonally transcribed and structured in the manner of a drama or screenplay. The objective view, together with the novel’s length — a mere 115 pages — is unassuming enough, but Baker’s novel is surprising in its scope, touching on subjects ranging from chicken farming to the Cold War to summers in Bermuda. In a novel where narrative technique prevents access to the unspoken inner life of its characters, such digressions provide the reader with good a sense of both men. If Jay and Ben are the only characters to inhabit the novel physically, they are hardly alone in spirit as their conversation progresses. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Clinton and Kennedy are all brought into the mix, maligned by Jay or Ben for their incessant warmongering. At the top of the heap is President Bush himself, rarely referred to by first or last name.

Jay’s justification for assassination is simple: “The guy can’t be allowed to get away with murder. Period.” Though liberal by nature and staunchly anti-war, Ben is horrified by Jay’s intent. Attempts to leave result only in threats from Jay, who claims to have a gun and a number of “magic” bullets. Clued in to the precariousness of Jay’s mental state, Ben attempts to dissuade his friend from the task at hand with a reminder of what assassination could mean for fragile U.S. interests at home and abroad. The ensuing discussion results in a terrifying portrait of contemporary America. “We are so close to financial collapse in this country,” Ben declares. “We’re just on the edge. We’re hollow. The termites have been munching for decades.”

In “Vox,” Nicholson Baker considered fantasy in sexual terms. With “Checkpoint,” he revisits the subject of fantasy with renewed passion. On recounting a visit to the book depository in Dallas, Texas, Jay says, “And I thought, I want to see what it feels like to be in the last place where a president was shot dead. Where somebody had moved from the fantasy stage over to the reality stage, shall we say.” Baker’s ability to walk the line between the two is what makes “Checkpoint” so interesting.

In a year when “What if?” fiction fulfills its literary quotient with Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” Nicholson Baker never fully embraces his hypothetical scenario. While “Checkpoint” poses a compelling “What if?” question, readers are finally left wondering, “What now?” Though Jay’s intent is clear throughout, the reality of the situation is never revealed. When the taped conversation ends, so does the novel.

In a book so passionately anti-war, Baker’s characteristic restraint minimizes melodrama, keeping the heavy-handedness of his subject matter from overwhelming the plight of his characters. The resulting gravity makes for an unsettling portrait of rage and grief. Famous for his meditations on the mundane, Baker breaks new ground in “Checkpoint,” delivering heartfelt controversy, and with it, a dire warning. For a book capable of galvanizing the left and infuriating the right, “Checkpoint” is quick to show how easily, and terribly, political matters can blind a nation to the value of life and the terror of war.

 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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