Morris Feldstein is a quiet man. A peaceful man. The kind of man who wants nothing more than to enjoy his baseball games, his take-out dinners with his longtime wife, and the slow slide into oblivion. In other words, Morris Feldstein isn’t really ‘international terrorist’ material. And yet, a single bad decision has unexpected ramifications. When the U.S.’s newest anti-terrorism weapon – an interagency computer program capable of putting together disparate pieces of intelligence to suss out credible threats from a hundred different sources – sees this deviation from his pattern it assumes the worst, as it was programmed to do. And all of the sudden, quiet Morris Feldstein becomes Public Enemy #1.
Welcome to The Global War on Morris, a satirical look at post-9/11 America from Congressman Steve Israel. At heart, the book is intended to be a comedic take on the War on Terror, pitting an everyman schlub against America’s vast, all-knowing intelligence network. But the book is a bit scattershot in its comedy, with everyone and everything in it reduced to comedic stereotypes. Sometimes it works: Morris and Rona’s daughter, a struggling documentarian working at the GAP, for instance, is only sporadically present, but is almost always entertaining when she does show up. The book’s best bits follow a number of the struggling G-men trying to rise up the ladder by using Morris – the ne plus ultra of nebbishy Jewish men – to further their agenda, or the ‘real’ terrorists who are about one more Big Mac away from thinking, “You know, America isn’t that bad after all.” The stereotypes are broad, but they piece together so damn well that it’s mostly hard to mind. Like the Coens’ underrated spy farce Burn After Reading, The Global War on Morris mines a lot of comedy from people who know nothing, but think they know everything.
Less accomplished, however, are the Big Players who drop in periodically – Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, and their ilk. Now, writing a satire of governmental obsession with domestic terrorism would be difficult without bringing them up, since it was an issue that defined the administration. But, I also felt oddly uneasy at seeing a Democratic Congressman take so many jabs at Republican counterparts who have already lost their battles in the court of public opinion, particularly when doing so often ground the story to a halt. Cheney and crew function almost like a Greek Chorus, commenting on what we already know without actually doing anything. But what’s that old saw about ‘explaining the joke?’ The book’s strongest sections focus on the ridiculous bureaucratic war that took advantage of the culture of fear the administration promoted; its weakest just reiterate, over and over again, that yes, they did promote a culture of fear. We know that, we don’t need it explained to us. It’s telling rather than showing, which is particularly baffling given how good Israel typically is at showing.
The Global War on Morris is mostly a very solid book, though it could have used considerably more focus. Still, readers looking for an engaging satire on the bizarre culture we’ve adopted in America in the years since 9/11 will likely enjoy this. But the book is too late to be timely and too partisan to have broad, universal appeal, which will likely turn some readers off. The Global War on Morris isn’t bad, but it lacks coherence and gut-punch power of truly great satire.
Cal Cleary is a librarian and critic in small-town Ohio. You can read more of his work at his blog, The Comical Librarian, and you can follow him on Twitter @comicalibrarian.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Simon & Schuster. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.