NEW YORK – Once upon a time, back when the Global War on Terror was still in its infancy, Congressman Steve Israel found himself listening to a general confess to spying on a group of elderly anti-war Quakers. Already seized with a feeling of having fallen down the rabbit hole known as Washington, DC, Israel realized something: He had finally found the heart of his novel.
“Now, I don’t know anything about elderly Quakers, but I do know a lot about white, Jewish men in their 50s on Long Island,” said Israel. And so was born Morris Feldstein, the protagonist of Israel’s debut novel “The Global War on Morris.”
The political satire, soon to be released in paperback, tells the tale of Feldstein, a pharmaceutical salesman living and working in western Long Island who loves the Mets, loves his wife Rona, and whose biggest decision is whether to order in deli or Chinese food. It also introduces readers to Hassan, the head of a sleeper cell who works as a towel-boy at the Paradise Hotel and Residences in Florida. But at its core it’s a commentary on unchecked government excess, and the balance between homeland security and civil liberties.
“If I said I was going to write a book about NSA surveillance and the policy implications no one would read it, not even my mother,” the Democratic Congressman told The Times of Israel. “What I chose to do is tell the story of the ridiculous but frightening excesses of government. The sad fact is that for all the opposition NSA surveillance attracted, it’s still occurring. They are still spying on innocent Americans.”
As Israel, who has represented New York’s third Congressional District since 2001, writes, “Morris Feldstein’s entire life was tucked in the save confines of anonymity. If Morris clung to any life philosophy, it was ‘Don’t make waves.’”
But one day the receptionist at one of the doctors’ offices along Feldstein’s route seduces him. In a moment of weakness Morris, always a stickler for the rules, charges a non-business expense to his company credit card.
Then there is Hassan, who “doesn’t care much for terrorism – not after his sleeper cell started ignoring his messages. He’d rather ditch his towel-boy day job and dream about the seventy-two virgins he’ll meet in paradise,” Israel writes in his book.
Meanwhile, the government’s top-secret surveillance program, anchored by a giant, complex supercomputer known as NICK, thinks differently. Eventually, NICK starts to thread together the largely disparate and tenuously connected strands of Morris’s life and Morris becomes the US government’s new public enemy number one.
Although “Global War” is his first novel, it’s his second book. His first book was “Great Jewish Speeches in History.” Israel has also written satire for The New Yorker and is at work on second novel about the gun control lobby.
Israel recalled sitting in top-secret meetings shortly after 9/11 thinking that what some people said would make good dialogue for a book novel. But he had no story.
Nevertheless he started writing down what people said as a way to deal with the insanity. He wrote on planes and on trains. He wrote at 5 a.m. and he wrote late at night. He also wrote the entire book on his iPhone.
“It’s gotten to the point that when people see me take out my iPhone they get very quiet,” he said.
Much of what comes out of the mouths of Steven Israel’s characters was taken verbatim – as in the case of former president George Bush and former vice president Dick Cheney
That’s because much of what comes out of the mouths of his characters was either taken verbatim – as in the case of former president George Bush and former vice president Dick Cheney – or loosely based on what people said during meetings.
While Morris and Rona are drawn from a composite of people he knows, the character of the frustrated Homeland Security agent Jon Pruitt is based on a real person who was a staffer in the Bush White House who shared how excessive the Bush White House was becoming in overtaking civil liberties, Israel said.
For Israel, Hassan and his friends were some of the more interesting characters to write.
“I always wondered what would happen if you were placed in this country as a sleeper cell. You become part of it, you go to malls, you go out and you watch all of its messy freedoms. I don’t know for sure but I suspect you might begin to appreciate it,” Israel said.
And as for what is quite possibly the only novel ever to be dedicated to former vice president Dick Cheney?
“My dad was a very outspoken, Jewish progressive living in Phoenix, Arizona. He had a deep animosity for Dick Cheney. For my dad he represented everything that was wrong in the country,” Israel said. “I don’t know if he [Dick Cheney] read it, but if I’m gone for more than five days come looking for me.”