The angry author, a literary storm and 'one dead armadillo'

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The Independent US

After the recent flurry of damning political memoirs, not to mention Michael Moore's box-office busting documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, the Bush administration might feel it has been dumped on quite enough for one election season.

After the recent flurry of damning political memoirs, not to mention Michael Moore's box-office busting documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, the Bush administration might feel it has been dumped on quite enough for one election season.

But the worst may be yet to come, in the unlikeliest of forms: a slim volume of fiction from the ordinarily mild-mannered minimalist Nicholson Baker.

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 cabinet.

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.

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 re-election battle.

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 bastard."

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 gunfire.

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