Early next year, Republican Congressman Pete King of Long Island will release his third novel, which may be something of a record for a public official not named Benjamin Disraeli. That’s not to say that Mr. King’s efforts measure up to the gouty old imperialist’s canon, but then again Mr. King has been juggling his writing with the performance of his public duties, while Disraeli’s best novels were finished before he moved into 10 Downing Street.
Besides, Mr. King would hardly be pleased to find himself mentioned in the same breath as a British politician who did his level best to suppress the national aspirations of the Irish-and the Indians, and the Zulus, and anybody else who wasn’t particularly happy about singing anthems to a foreign queen.
Mr. King’s first two books could roughly be described as “I.R.A. novels,” although his second, Deliver Us From Evil, also contained some tantalizing, barely disguised glimpses of life in Washington during President Clinton’s impeachment and trial. Mr. Clinton, in fact, is a major character in the novel, along with a vaguely familiar Congressman named Sean Cross, a Republican from Long Island. Congressman Cross returns in Mr. King’s new book, Vale of Tears , which, like Deliver Us From Evil , is set in the future, after a second Islamic terrorist attack on New York. And like his previous novel, the plot often flips back to the immediate past, in this case Sept. 11 and its aftermath.
The attack on the World Trade Center devastated Mr. King’s district and his larger base of Long Island, reminding us yet again that while lower Manhattan was the target, the horror was far more widespread. Mr. King himself spent several anxious hours that morning, fearful that his wife, who had been scheduled to fly out of La Guardia Airport that morning, or his son and son-in-law were among the victims. “That story doesn’t make me unique by any means,” he said. “There were thousands of people like me who had those moments of fear.” And then there were those whose fears were all too justified: Mr. King figures he lost more than 100 people in his district, not to mention friends like Father Mychal Judge and Pete Ganci, chief of the Fire Department. Close friends of his lost loved ones, like former firefighter Jimmy Boyle, whose firefighter son died in the collapse.
Last June, the Congressman turned to paper and a pen-he writes in longhand-in an attempt “to make some sense of what had happened.” He drew not only on the events of that terrible day, but on the firsthand knowledge he was accumulating as a member of Congress with strong ties to law-enforcement agencies. The novel reflects Mr. King’s belief, based on conversations with federal and local security officials, that the Muslim community in the United States has not cooperated with the government’s attempt to root out terrorists among us.
“I’ve worked with the Muslim community on Long Island for years, and I’ve spoken at mosques,” he said. “And after the attacks, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be terrible for the Muslim community to be blamed for this.’ I said that on television shows-that we can’t allow a backlash, that we’re all Americans.”
About a month after the attacks, however, Mr. King attended an interfaith service on Long Island during which a rabbi, a Catholic bishop and a Protestant minister offered words of consolation and comfort. “And then this imam gets up and starts knocking the hell out of the United States,” Mr. King recalled. “He used this ceremony as a chance to air all kinds of grievances.”
That real-life ceremony inspired a fictional confrontation in his book between Congressman Cross and a respected Muslim doctor, who equates Osama bin Laden’s terrorism with American foreign policy.
“In speaking to security officials from all levels of government, I’m hearing that they are not getting the cooperation they would like from the Muslim community,” Mr. King said. “It seems as though they may be doing well, but they are outside the system. They’re Muslims first.” Reminded that similar accusations were made of Catholics, particularly Irish Catholics, in the mid-19th century, Mr. King made note of the conspicuous Irish presence in the Union Army during the Civil War.
“When the test came, they were eager to prove they were just as American as the nativists,” Mr. King said. “That has been true of other groups as well.” But, he noted, after Sept. 11, there weren’t many U.S. flags flying along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, where many Arab-Americans own businesses.
“I get letters every day from Muslims laying out their grievances, and that’s fine,” he said. “But don’t put this in the context of Sept. 11. That establishes a moral equivalency between America and Osama bin Laden.”
Congressman Sean Cross surely would not approve.