Big Guns by Steve Israel
U.S. Representative-turned-novelist Steve Israel delivers his second novel Big Guns, which carries the torch of the 2005 comedy film Thank You for Smoking—it’s the satirical tale of an industry that revels in its uncanny ability to perpetuate its product upon the population, despite the overwhelming extent of its detrimental effects. Instead of cigarettes, Big Guns takes aim at the firearms manufacturing industry, armed in full with its infinite wealth, devious lobbyists, bought legislators, super PACs, and manipulative utilization of the media. Though the subject matter is timely and relevant, the tale’s underlying commentary doesn’t much offer anything that hasn’t already been explored exhaustively in the media cycle surrounding every American mass shooting. The humor, offered as the book’s selling point, is more often labored than it is incisive. While it is a curious experience to get a career congressman’s inside take on Washington with a farcical edge, ultimately this style of political humor has long since achieved greater heights by the likes of Stephen Colbert, with Big Guns merely trailing in its wake.
Gun violence runs rampant in Chicago and beyond, and as with most mass shootings, there’s a significant cultural push to pass legislation restricting gun availability. Sunny McCarthy is a lobbyist for Cogsworth International Arms, and her think tank decides that the best defense is a good offense. This time around, the same NRA techniques won’t be enough to preserve the status quo, so with the stated goal of reducing violence, the company drafts legislation requiring every American to own a gun for self defense. Sunny’s mother, Lois, happens to be the mayor of the ultra-rich Long Island town Asabogue, where celebrities and trust fund babies spend their days whining through their first world problems. When Chicago passes a local ordinance banning guns, Lois follows suit and proposes and equivalent motion in Asabogue, triggering a rebellion that culminates in a recall election. The town’s referendum on guns becomes a synecdoche for the entire nation’s clash on the subject, and the otherwise quiet town becomes a hub of chaotic media attention. Truly and tragically, the subsequent battle is thick with deception, corruption, and, well, violence.
To its credit, Big Guns feels hypercurrent. It’s thrust directly from the headlines, the logical effect of the string of mass shootings that began in the 90s and continues today. In addition to the subject of guns, the financial 1% make up an inextricable portion of the tale, the elite who use the facade of democracy to maintain their wealthy foothold. The novel successfully balances the parallel narratives of the legislative battle in Washington D.C., with the local gossip and intrigue of the Asabogue recall election. While there are a great many characters populating this 300 page story, it’s never hard to keep track of who’s who, and no single character feels expendable. Included are freshman senators, career incumbents, corporate lobbyists, and tin hat conspiracy theorists. Though implicitly set in the present, Big Guns uses the House of Cards approach by making all its political figures fictional, including the president. On the other hand, the book mentions by name specific landmark events including Obamacare and Sandy Hook, so while the characters’ names are unrecognizable, the subject matter absolutely reflects the country we know all too well.
Despite some promising components, the novel’s tone and presentation don’t serve its full potential. Big Guns tries to be satirically funny, and overtly so. One noticeable issue is that many of the cultural commentary zingers come directly from the narrator, and often lack the comedic punch that could have otherwise been delivered by having the characters themselves demonstrate those behaviors and ideologies. The narrator in Big Guns talks, a lot. There’s a number of chapters that don’t really advance the action, instead merely illustrating the execution of plans already established. The chapter divisions are not particularly logical; though most sections are on the shorter side, a single chapter regularly bounces between two or more active threads, making the chapter start and end points appear arbitrary.
Author Israel attempts to insert an obligatory emotional layer through the relationship of mayor Lois and her gun lobbyist daughter, but this attempt to balance out the heavy satire feels forced. Giving the two prominent characters family ties may have been a practical plotting decision to link the national and local plotlines together, but if so, this doesn’t account for the extended treatment their backstory is afforded late in the novel. It’s one of many ingredients that Big Guns throws at the wall, but very few elements stand out to the extent that you’ll remember them fondly a year from now. It’s interesting enough that a Congressman of over 15 years could pivot to the novelist’s skill set and write a full-length novel that is, ultimately, not all that bad. This in itself makes the book worth a look, as many of its verbal whoppers were likely taken directly from statements overheard at excruciating fundraisers and purgatorial committee hearings. But the context surrounding the novel’s origins can only carry it so far, and with nothing all that new to say, the commentary within isn’t noticeably pronounced.