by Nicholson Baker
Back in 2004, “Checkpoint” was blasted by reviewers for daring in fiction to have as its subject matter the possibility of killing a sitting United States president. The New York Times reviewer called it “a scummy little book,” and Republicans used it to attack Democrats as crazed liberals even though Democrats had nothing to do with the book being published in that chaotic election year.
But buried in the controversial novel, and buried in the tumult of reviews that condemned even the thought about a novel about someone “thinking” about assassinating a president — not doing it — is a unique literary argument, and a strong one at that, for the ending of legalized abortion.
If only author Nicholson Baker had found a different vehicle to make his powerful points about the immorality of aborting babies in the womb.
Outrageous main subject matter
You can call “Checkpoint” alternative writing, non-traditional, unusual in format and way-out-in-leftfield when it comes to subject matter.
What else would you call a novel that is entirely dialogue between just two characters and involves one guy trying to talk the other guy out of assassinating President George W. Bush?
Jay is the nut-case character who has determined he can no longer take Bush’s war-mongering. He’s adamant that the only way to stop the killing — and stop the President from other sins he’s convinced Bush is responsible for — is to get onto the White House grounds and put an end to Bush.
Ben, a long-time friend, gets a call to come to a Washington hotel because Jay has something important to tell him. When Ben finds out what Jay has in mind, he does all he can to reason with his friend and save him from this mistake.
It’s hilarious writing, as off-beat as it comes, with an off-beat topic pursued through 115 pages of off-beat banter. Jay’s ideas about how to assassinate the president are ludicrous, even stupid, great signals that no killing is going to happen. The dialogue format is amazingly conversational. The counter punching of the argumentation is superbly done, with point and counterpoint being made with comic timing and tangents creeping in to add to the fun.
My personal favorite of these — because it is so true to life — is Jay’s little side trip to bemoan the Wal-Marting of the world.
Jay begins blasting Wal-Mart for buying products from other countries and adding to the demise of American manufacturing. Ben responds that his son loves Wal-Mart, that the last time he shopped there he got a really cheap DVD of the Andy Griffith Show and a pretzel, and “there were friendly chatty women in the crafts and sewing area.”
Jay: What were they chatting about?
Ben: Who was going to go on break first.
Pro-life message ahead
Amid all the silliness, amid the rationale that the President has to die in order to stop the killing of both combatants and non-combatants in Iraq, all of a sudden on Page 81 Jay makes the point that the United States won’t be a righteous nation until legalized abortion is repealed. Ben tries to fend off his arguments, but Jay scores all the points.
He makes arguments that Catholics have been making since 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision. Jay calls “reproductive rights” a huge inconsistency in the liberal position, calls “pro-choice” a fake term, and soundly condemns the use of the word “fetus.”
Jay: Twenty percent of all pregnancies in this country end up being aborted. That’s hundreds of thousands of infants.
Jay. Not fetuses! “Fetus” is a scientific word that’s deliberately chosen to be ugly so that the remorse of killing will not attach to it. Infants.
Jay likewise takes apart the argument that abortion needed to be legal to stop back-alley abortions:
“Because there were evil doctors and incompetent doctors, and people who pretended to be doctors but were really killers, who harmed desperate women, therefore we must continue to permit the killing of the unborn? What kind of an argument is that?”
“Checkpoint” may be the most powerful literary attack on abortion ever.
Killed by the reviews
But you’ve likely never read “Checkpoint.”
It’s not a new work. It was published by Alfred A. Knopf, a publishing company that deserves a pat on the back for printing a strange-but-creative, outlandish novel with a message few other mainstream publishers have the guts to put on paper. And it was soundly condemned before it even hit the bookstores.
Perhaps it is outrageous to write anything — even a fictional political satire — about assassinating a president. Perhaps our national sensitivity to the horror of such an act won’t allow this kind of writing, even writing that seems meant not to provoke such an evil deed but rather to first, entertain, and certainly to make political points about the immorality not just of George W. Bush’s war-making but the failure to act morally by several generations of American leadership.
What’s sad for me is that Baker’s wonderful polemic about the sin of abortion got lost in the wash. He may have been wrong about writing about presidential assassination, but about abortion he was right on. — bz