Checkpoint, by Nicholas Baker. Knopf. 128 pages. $15.95
In 1992, Nicholson Baker published Vox -- 150 pages of erudite raunch, an extended dialogue between a man and a woman having phone sex. Vox was a stunt and a provocation -- a naughty rebuke to the Bush / Quayle "family values" era -- but it was still delicious. The author gave voice to the most puerile fantasies of very intelligent people -- people who had been trained not to speak aloud, must less write down, such nasty thoughts.
Now comes the novella Checkpoint, Baker's much-discussed contribution to the election-year debate -- and a sequel, of sorts, to Vox. This time the dialogue is between two men, and this time the fantasy is not about sex, but violence. One of the men, Jay, has determined that he's going to assassinate Presi-dent George W. Bush. The other man, his old friend Ben, spends 100-plus pages trying to talk him off the ledge.
To its slight credit, Check-point manages to capture a very distinct kind of rage toward the Bush administration -- the feeling among many previously apolitical, fundamentally patriotic Americans that while they weren't looking, their president betrayed them and their country. "This guy is beyond the beyond," Jay says. "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."
But whereas something like Michael Moore's moving film Fahrenheit 9 / 11 sought to understand and contextualize that rage, Checkpoint is mostly content to wallow in it. Halfway through the book, it becomes evident that Jay is insane (he plans to kill Bush using "homing bullets" that are placed in a box with a photograph of Bush to "marinate"). By the end, there is almost nothing at stake, and Ben has asserted himself as the voice of calm. In other words, Baker gets to indulge his basest fantasies and then slough them off -- he wasn't "really" serious, you see. He lacks the courage of his own swinish convictions.
Checkpoint is far from a wash: Parts of it are very funny, such as Jay's contention that Dick Cheney and Donald Rums-feld are "zombies" who have risen from the dead of the Nixon administration. Parts of Check-point are genuinely eyebrow-raising and daring, such as when Jay suggests that the left's biggest failure in the past 30 years has been its alignment with the pro-choice movement.
But Baker doesn't expand upon his provocations; he just tosses them off and meanders forward. The entire book, in fact, seems tossed-off and half-thought-through -- the product of a talented writer trying to convert his barstool rantings and musings into book sales. Baker ends up making his rage seem trivial. Unlike with Vox, this time his stunt ends up stunted.