All the rage

Shortly after Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 steamrolled into theaters, The Onion ran one of its funniest headlines in years. “Nation’s Liberals Suffering from Outrage Fatigue,” the banner read.

It’s all good and well to poke fun of people tuning out for a bit, but what if someone allowed his or her political outrage to continue escalating? Nicholson Baker explores one worst-case scenario in his latest novel, Checkpoint, a brief but provocative little Frisbee of a tale about political frustration.

As in his 1992 novel Vox, the story unfolds like a transcript. Two middle-aged men named Ben and Jay are talking in a Washington, D.C., area hotel. An ex-drinker on a long slide toward failure, Jay has summoned his friend Ben for a chat. He gets the ball rolling by unloading this bombshell: “I’m going to assassinate the president.”

Plenty of movies have revolved around plots to assassinate a president, but Checkpoint is the first literary novel to do so. Reading it can be both exhilarating and confusing then. Can literature be this enmeshed in politics—the book references both Halliburton and Abu Ghraib—and remain literature?

The novel’s title has a double meaning. On a literal level, it refers to an incident in Iraq in which American soldiers shot at a family as it passed through a checkpoint in a war zone. Two young girls were killed, as was their grandfather. He had worn a pinstripe suit to look more American.

“Checkpoint” also refers to the mental state of mind one reaches after prolonged exposure to one’s own moral outrage. Jay rationalizes his decision as a kind of violent check and balance: “If you as the guy in charge allow killing to go forward, if you in fact promote killing. If you say, Go, men, launch the planes, start the bombing, shock and awe the living shit out of that ancient city—you are going to create assassins like me.”

Jay’s gripes with the president are actually very similar to Moore’s. Some are legitimate; a few are far-fetched. He begins by talking about the war in Iraq, decrying the use of napalm, the death of 11,000 innocent civilians. And then, like Moore, he snowballs this legitimate human-rights complaint into a giant catchall of gripes, roaming from Dick Cheney’s corruption to Donald Rumsfeld’s chin to the president’s annoying trademark smirk. He even tosses in one of Moore’s most dubious claims about the war in Afghanistan beginning over an urge to profit from an oil pipeline.

This gumbo of fact and speculation certainly will make Checkpoint a controversial book. Indeed, the novel already has been grossly misinterpreted by Leon Wieseltier in the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review as an argument. The goal of this book is not to convince readers to rise up and become assassins, but to capture the internal combustion process of outrage turning to anger and then violence—which Baker does brilliantly.

Anyone thinking this is a prelude to an actual occurrence—or a literal argument for why George W. Bush should be voted out of office—ought to read a little further. How does Jay plan to do it? For starters, he has smart bullets that simply need to marinate near a photograph of the target, and they’ll find their way to him. If that doesn’t work, he’s going to unleash a giant ball bearing and simply roll it down the hill and crush Bush.

There you have it. Dubya won’t have to worry about copycat crimes. But, if a few more voters feel like Jay does, the president might just find himself a little behind that eight ball come November 2.