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Barry Yourgrau Headshot

Smoke?

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The NY Times just now ran a cutish feature about author Nicholson Baker, known usually as an eccentric literary miniaturist. Baker's new book however is the very uncute Human Smoke, The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization: it debunks the happy myths of the good guys in that grand good fight.

There would be blood, indeed, and a great deal of it would be women's and children's, too bad. Or, in fact, good.

The Times feature's writer, Charles McGrath (former editor of the Book Review) mentions Baker's previous works, noting his slight venture into notoriety with Vox, which was about phone sex, and which Monica Lewinsky gave as a present to Bill Clinton.

He doesn't however mention--glaringly, I thought-- Baker's more recent and much more notorious book, Checkpoint, which came out right before Republican convention in 2004.

Checkpoint is a novel about a man so enraged at, and deranged by, George Bush's criminality and bloody-handedness that he plans to kill him--the possible means of death-dealing being "depleted uranium boulders, flying radio-controlled CD saws, homing bullets trained to target the victim by being 'marinated' in a tin with a picture of the president, and hypnotized Manchurian scorpions." Harsh cartoonish stuff, but man, feel and share the rage.

A lot of critics didn't share and didn't laugh. In the Times Book Review, Leon Wieseltier called Checkpoint a "scummy little book." In the Book Review Letters, I called Wieseltier's review "scummy" back.

Human Smoke is Baker's calmer and more devastating follow up Checkpoint, judging from what I've read about it. The book weaves together a chronology of the years leading into the war, drawing on short takes from multiple sources.

I was reminded of Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist's similiar weaving of short takes in his searing The History of Bombing. I trust Baker knows of the book.

Bombing
is the story of contemporary warfare. We read everywhere about how many American troops are in Iraq (leaving out the securtiy contractors of course). But how many airplanes? We read about firefights and engagements: but how many bombing runs? How much bomb tonnage do we not ever hear or know about?

Where do those bombs fall? On military targets, is it? I bet Baker and Lindqvist have something to say on that.

From Human Smoke:

Several days later, Churchill wrote Hugh "Boom" Trenchard, the head of the Royal Air Force, a memo. Churchill and Trenchard were developing the notion of policing the British empire from above, thereby saving the cost of ground troops -- a policy that became known as "air control."
"I think you should certainly proceed with the experimental work on gas bombs, especially mustard gas, which would inflict punishment on recalcitrant natives without inflicting grave injury on them," Churchill wrote Trenchard. Churchill was an expert on the effects of mustard gas -- he knew that it could blind and kill, especially children and infants. Gas spreads a "lively terror," he pointed out in an earlier memo; he didn't understand the prevailing squeamishness about its use: "I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes." Most of those gassed wouldn't have "serious permanent effects," he said.


Appreciations to Uber.com, where this piece first appeared on my blog Brain Flakes.

Also at Smirkingchimp.com.