By Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles
After the recent flurry of damning political memoirs, not to mention
Michael Moore’s box-office busting documentaryFahrenheit 9/11, the Bush
administration might feel it has been dumped on quite enough for one
But the worst may be yet to come, in the unlikeliest
of forms: a slim volume of fiction from the ordinarily mild-mannered minimalist
Mr Baker’s new novel, Checkpoint, features two
characters who spend much of its 115 pages discussing how to assassinate
President George Bush. They don’t actually do the deed, or even attempt
it, but the book is – according to early snippets – replete with deep-seated
anger and elegantly nasty epithets hurled at both the President and his
Mr Baker’s publisher, Alfred Knopf, plans to
release the book on 24 August, on the eve of the Republican National
Convention in New York. To call it a provocation would be an understatement.
The author and publishers have no intention of giving anybody ideas -
to do so would be a criminal offence – but they are certainly playing
very close to the edge in a United States that, in the wake of the 11
September attacks, has shown no compunction about locking people up and
asking questions later, free speech rights be damned.
There was no immediate official reaction yesterday
after extracts from Checkpoint were published in The Washington Post.
A spokesman for the Secret Service, the uniformed outfit charged with
protecting the President and other officials, told the Post merely that
“without seeing the work, a determination can’t be made at this time”.
Likewise, it is impossible to tell whether Mr Baker’s
book will become a lightning rod for the competing political passions that
have divided the country, particularly over the war in Iraq and its aftermath.
Unlike Michael Moore, he has never laid claim to a populist mantle or
sought to attract attention to himself through overt rabble-rousing.
Rather, his invariably short, literary novels – The
Mezzanine, U and I, A Box of Matches – have tended to dwell on such mundane
activities as riding an escalator, tying one’s shoelaces and weeding. Only
Vox (1995) raised any eyebrows because it dealt with the topic of phone
sex. In the pages of The New Yorker and in subsequent published essays,
Mr Baker has also railed against the over-hasty introduction of digital record-keeping
in public libraries and the abandonment of paper – not exactly an issue
to induce the White House security detail to reach for their revolvers.
Checkpoint, though, is clearly something else.
According to the Post’s account, its two protagonists, Ben and Jay, talk
down and dirty about the Bush administration into a tape recorder during
an in-room lunch at a Washington hotel. Jay announces he’s going to assassinate
the President, and the men proceed to talk about both why and how he might
do such a thing.
By the sounds of it, the novel is hardly The
Anarchist’s Cookbook – the fanciful methods the two men consider to
take out the most powerful politician on the planet include using radio-controlled
flying saws. Another tactic they discuss is a remote-controlled boulder
made of depleted uranium. Ben asks Jay: “You’re going to squash the President?”
Jay also has a gun and some bullets, but the book
appears to cover its tracks somewhat by having Ben express extreme misgivings
about using them. “If the FBI and the Secret Service … come after me because
I’ve been hanging out with you in a hotel room before you make some crazy
attempt on the life of the President,” Ben says, “I’m totally cooked.”
More incendiary than Jay’s assassination fantasies,
in the end, may be the deep expressions of anger against the administration
the book dwells on. In that respect it is not unlike Joseph Heller’s 1979
novel Good as Gold, which included an extended rant against Henry Kissinger.
The difference, though, is that Kissinger had been out of power for two
years when Heller’s book was published; Mr Bush is in the middle of a bruising
Jay says he hasn’t felt so much hostility against
any other president – not Nixon, not Reagan. Jay says of Mr Bush: “He
is beyond the beyond. 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. And
it’s a new kind of anger, too.” At one point, he calls Mr Bush an “unelected
[expletive] drunken OILMAN” who is “squatting” in the White House and “muttering
over his prayer book every morning.” At another point, he calls Mr Bush
“one dead armadillo”.
Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are described as
“rusted hulks” and “zombies” who have “fought their way back up out of
the peat bogs where they’ve been lying, and they’re stumbling around with
grubs scurrying in and out of their noses and they’re going, ‘We – are
- your – advisors.’”
Jay expresses outrage at the munitions the United
States armed forces have used in Iraq, including an updated version of
napalm. Jay says of the Iraq bomb material: “It’s improved fire jelly -
it’s even harder to put out than the stuff they used in Vietnam. And Korea.
And Germany. And Japan. It just has another official name. Now it’s called
Mark 77. I mean, have we learnt nothing? Mark 77! I’m going to kill that
The title of the book is taken from an incident at
a checkpoint south of Karbala last year, in which US forces opened fire
on a Shia family of 17 travelling to southern Iraq to seek a safe haven.
Several family members died, including two young girls decapitated by the
COURTESY JOHN COULTHART!