Nicholson Baker, prose writer beyond category, has a new book for COVID time, speaking directly to the dread of weaponized biology as only Nick Baker could treat it, in history and in his head. This is the same Nick Baker who wrote Vox, the phone-sex novel that Monica Lewinsky presented to Bill Clinton; the same Nick Baker who knocked Winston Churchill off a pedestal, and got away with it, in a pacifist’s retelling of World War 2 as an orgy of imperial killing: Human Smoke, he called it. It’s that Nick Baker, the historian of darkness, who’s back this summer, piecing the bio-war story together, not in Trump time, but Truman time, when the hard men of the security state fell in love with germs.
His new book is about a mad lust for bio-weapons, germ warfare, at the top of the US government in the 1950s. He’s obsessive about extracting secret documents in the case, but his book about Project Baseless is only partly “documentary.” It’s equally a sort of writer’s diary: what a deep dive into the secret science of mass killing does to an ordinary man, himself. Nick Baker’s a novelist and then some. On the model of I. F. Stone or Sy Hersh, he’s relentless in the fine print of public archives. He’s got John Updike’s musical prose, E. B. White’s wry American whimsy, and a lot of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s eye, ever on his own day-to-day doings in the shadow of vast historical nightmares.
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