“Not a chance.” Steve Israel doesn’t let a second pass before replying, by phone from his office in New York, to Kirkus’s query whether he could ever be persuaded to run for Congress again. The eight-term U.S. Representative from New York’s Third District elaborates: “Having spent 16 years there and over 5,000 hours just fundraising, there is no way I would go back. I’ve learned since that I enjoy writing far more than I enjoy politicking.”
With his second novel, Big Guns, Israel works with a premise that could come from today’s headlines. Fretful that an electorate sick to death of constant massacres and shootings will do something silly like pass meaningful gun-control legislation, filthy-rich arms manufacturer Otis Cogsworth calls on a prominent DC lobbyist to get a law passed that requires every citizen to carry a gun. Alliances form, dollars exchange hands, political IOU’s are called in, and suddenly a law that seems to have no chance at all of passing clears all the hurdles.
All that doesn’t keep the good citizens of Asabogue, Long Island, from launching their own campaign to ban guns in their well-ordered, well-moneyed town, where Cogsworth just happens to have one of his many mansions. Cogsworth must then fight a rear-guard action, putting a dimwitted action-film star (think Charlton Heston) against the sitting mayor in a recall battle.
Throw in some behind-the-scenes intrigue and some looney-tunes right-wing conspiracy-mongering (“When the Muslims cross the Mexican border and take over the country, and USA stands for United States of Allah, and the Constitution is replaced with Sharia law—then they’ll know!”) and you’ve got a pretty accurate picture of the current political scene, if one that’s painted with a very broad brush and with tongue firmly in cheek.
“The storyline seems unbelievable, but I got the idea for the book from a real event, when I read that a little town in Georgia had passed a law making it mandatory for residents to own guns,” says Israel. “I just took that to its logical end.”
Or illogical end, perhaps. One of the books Israel thought of while writing his own was Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking, which does the same thing for Big Tobacco that Big Guns does for—well, big guns. And if Big Tobacco once had its legions of lobbyists and paid shills, we all know how it has been defanged by legal action and citizen initiative in the last few decades. It doesn’t faze Israel in the least to know that his book is likely to put him squarely on the bad side of the National Rifle Association, which owns fully half of Congress and would seem likely to be very pleased indeed at the success of a Cogsworthian gun-strapping initiative. In fact, Israel is busily making notes for a third novel that will take his darkly comic insider’s view of politics to new smoke-filled rooms—or new smoking guns.
“It’s art imitating life imitating art imitating life,” Israel says of his book. He then takes a serious turn: “If there was no common sense after Sandy Hook, after Charleston, after Orlando, after Vegas, when will there be common sense? I could have written the book from the inside, a lucid analysis showing the dynamics of the gun lobby in Congress, but that would have been a bestseller maybe in my mother’s house. I decided to use satire to make the analysis more accessible, to bring people onto the floor and into the House of Representatives, into the negotiations I participated in, so that they can see for themselves how absurd—and ultimately how tragic—the debate gets.”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.