A call to arms

Former US congressman Steve Israel takes on the gun lobby in his first satirical novel.

IN A congressman’s debut novel, a Long Island mayor proposes making her hamlet a gun-free zone (photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)
IN A congressman’s debut novel, a Long Island mayor proposes making her hamlet a gun-free zone
(photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)
F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously observed that “there are no second acts in American life.” Fitzgerald, though, never had the opportunity to meet congressman-turned-novelist Steve Israel.
The former representative from New York’s third congressional district, Israel has produced in Big Guns – a spirited satire of the gun lobby and American politics in all its hubris and corruption. Drawing with relish on his own experience, Israel cooks up a zany tale of a political scandal that overruns the sleepy fictional Long Island town of Asabogue.
When the mayor of violence-torn Chicago proposes nationwide gun legislation, the gun lobby and its allies quickly launch a high-profile counterattack.
Their first target: Asabogue Mayor Lois Liebowitz, who has proposed making her tiny hamlet a gun-free zone entirely. A small-town liberal who rides a junky bicycle every day to Village Hall, Liebowitz draws the ire of the right when she proposes banning firearms outright. She is opposed by luminaries like Jack Steele, a billionaire action-movie hero turned gun nut; Roy Dirkey, an ambitious Arkansas congressman with a “toothy smile and an aw-shucks charm”; and Sunny McCarthy, a ruthless and beautiful right-wing lobbyist and spin doctor.
A Modest Proposa
l it’s not, but Big Guns and its rollicking carousel of political skulduggery provide plenty of opportunities for Israel to score points off the foibles of our political system – an admittedly broad and eminently hittable target. As a legislator, Israel was a centrist Democrat, and he expends much of his derision on conservatives who do things like offer up a sincere prayer for Jesus to “help us defeat the McCullom substitute amendment to the Coal Power Tax Credit Extension Act.”
Such swipes are nicely balanced by descriptions of Lois’s liberal supporters as “hard-bitten veterans of soft causes” who “looked like a field trip from an adult education class on social activism.”
Humor is notoriously subjective, but Beltway wit has always seemed to me curiously adolescent, long on corn and innuendo, short on sophistication.
Big Guns is no exception. Israel’s fictional president finds that an attractive White House lawyer “lifted his spirits and at least one other thing,” even though “a new poll” has his “favorability somewhere between root canal and head lice.”
A “Lysistrata”-style sexual boycott called by “a militant pro-choice group” has caused male voters to “whip out pens to sign precoital agreements before whipping out other instruments”; the Capitol dining room serves “slathered heaps of pork sausages, with a generous helping of tax subsidies on the side.”
If this is your kind of thing, you’re probably going to need an oxygen tank at some point; more refined readers may find themselves groaning. Israel’s writing in general is more energetic than skillful – his first novel was written “in cars, planes, and the occasional boring meeting,” he says – but no one is likely to pick up Big Guns in search of shimmering literary prose.
As it is, he is surprisingly deft at constructing a twisty plot capable of keeping the reader flipping the pages – a harder task than it seems. He even proves capable of rising to an elegiac lyricism when describing a long-gone small-town Long Island where “neighbors gathered on porches” and the dusky evenings were full of “eruptions of laughter up and down the block.”
Harder to swallow is the book’s relentless cynicism, which at times registers as sour, even cheap.
No two-decade-long denizen of Congress is likely to emerge with a misty vision of public service intact, of course, but despite its cheek, Big Guns feels oddly resigned.
An early riff on how “the honorable few” politicians who attempt to improve the lives of their constituents “may have been revered, but they were irrelevant” comes off as snide posturing rather than canny hard truth. The denouement is cleverly engineered but emotionally empty, and the book’s moral standpoint can be reduced to a shrug.
Truly great satire is actually a species of wounded romanticism, the work of those who, deep down, can’t believe the world is really as wicked as it seems, and whose wit serves as an astringent form of correction. Big Guns, in contrast, has breadth but no real bite; Israel is a little too comfortable with his targets for his gibes to really sting. That said, irreverence seems to be in painfully short supply these days, and as a nation we could use all the yuks we can get, by fair means or foul.
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