NECESSARY ROUGHNESS 


Checkpoint
(Knopf, 115 pages)
Vintage Baker
(Vintage, 195 pages)
By Nicholson Baker

If you've seen Fahrenheit 9/11, paid attention to the news (the real news, not the sound bites on the networks' evening broadcasts), looked at your savings account balance or read any of the dozens of books that chronicle the multiple levels of corruption in the current administration, you've got to admit that you've thought about it. The frustration and helplessness that have boiled up after watching an inept ideologue do his best to run this country into the ground is bad enough, but the guileless doublespeak that has half of the country believing the thoroughly unbelievable claptrap that spews from the maw of the Bush White House is what makes it unbearable.

That's what made you start considering how much better this country would be if somebody would just dispatch the primary evildoer into the Great Beyond he so obviously wishes to attend. So, sure, it gets thought about, but, being rational, ethical and immoderately fearful of the PATRIOT Act repercussions of those thoughts, you don't actually do it ... or even talk about it. After all, this is still a civilized democracy and we express dissatisfaction with the ballot, not the bullet. Plus, you'd have to be a lunatic to even consider such nonsense.

That very lunatic – thinking those very thoughts – is the unlikely protagonist in Nicholson Baker's latest work. Checkpoint is put forth as a playlike discussion between said protagonist (Jay) and his friend (Ben) while the two are cooped up in a hotel room, debating Jay's plan to take out Bush. Yes, Baker makes it that direct. Part Waiting for Godot, part by-the-numbers damnation of the administration and part Travis Bickle's inner dialogue, Checkpoint is, in true Baker style, an unusual read, but it does lean quite heavily on a Vox-style two-way conceit. He doesn't bother with stage-setting or background and simply leaves Jay and Ben to the thoroughly abnormal process of weighing the pros and cons of presidential assassination. The diatribes that Baker allows Jay to engage in are mostly boilerplate left-wing hysteria, and in that, the author finds an interesting axis upon which to spin the story, making Jay seem just as stubborn, unreasonable and unethical as his potential target. This makes an interesting – if perhaps too subtle – balance to the venomous tone of the book, but then again, Baker has always been one to traffic in well-disguised nuance.

Such nuances are much harder to grasp in a new collection of Baker's "greatest hits" from Vintage. Although the "Vintage Reader" series is providing a valuable resource by introducing writers via portions of their best works, one could argue that compressing V.S. Naipaul or Joan Didion (two of the 15 other writers to be given the treatment) to around 200 pages each doesn't exactly give one a feel for the richness of their prose. Similarly, though Baker has always been a tight and brisk writer, his are darkly humorous stories that necessarily unfold over the course of their pages. The languid sexual dialogue of Vox and the paranoid drama of The Fermata are treasures of rhythm and release that are essentially "books" in the same way that Dark Side of the Moon is essentially an album. Nonetheless, the shorter pieces that are featured ("Leading With the Grumper" is fabulously funny) are perfectly appropriate.


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