‘Last Gasp’ novel grips conspiracy and possibilities

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It’s an old cliché, but “art imitates life” is probably the best way one can describe Howard Levine’s new book.

Although “Last Gasp” is a made-up tale revolving around conspiracy and U.S. government cover-ups, it’s a version of life no less, inspired by the climate of Islamophobia in America and what he described as right-winged governments.

“It’s a thriller and it’s a page-turner,” the retired special education teacher said. “It presents a possibility that when you take right-winged fanaticism to its nth degree, it presents a possibility of what might occur. And I do think it’s possible.”

In the book, terrorists have bombed Co-op City, killing the niece of the main character, Frank Tedeschi. While the world believes this was the work of Muslim extremists, in reality, it was an attack backed by the United States. The tragedy brings together two brothers — one a detective and the other a Vietnam War veteran — to uncover the truth.

Levine knows a lot about the north Bronx because he’s lived in nearby Inwood for more than 30 years. On the brothers’ mission, Frank and Rob interact with people from the Riverdale area, but most of the book’s setting is found near Westchester County and Yonkers.

Levine grew up in the Edenwald housing projects of Eastchester and attended DeWitt Clinton High School, and worked for years at the John F. Kennedy campus. Today, however, Levine considers himself an ex-New Yorker since moving to Washington, D.C., in 1984, where the transcendental meditation community is much larger.

His love for the restorative technique was part of the reason he made the change.

The mind of Levine zips from science-fiction to thriller, but at his heart, he’s a man who appreciates a clear mind. Transcendental meditation is silent, originating from Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the godfather of the ruminating practice.

When practicing, legs and arms are preferred uncrossed. Passing thoughts are not discouraged, but the focus should be on the “mantra” — a repeated word or sound — inside the person’s mind.

“It’s a situation where the mind becomes peaceful and expanded,” Levine said. “You experience a deep state of rest, and it’s something that furthers creativity and mental acuity. I just felt there was more to life than what I was experiencing, and it’s a way of experiencing the inner sense and self-realization.”

Before he moved, Levine was a regular lecturer on meditation in this part of the Bronx, including at places like the Kingsbridge Library on West 231st Street and the College of Mount Saint Vincent.

Levine has worn many hats throughout his life, but he didn’t don the author cap for the first time with “Last Gasp.” Instead, his first foray into the publishing world was, “Leaving This Life Behind,” about a woman’s experience in the afterlife. Levine chose his home borough for the setting because it’s one of the places he knows the most about. There’s something more authentic for an author describing places he or she has been, he said, creating a natural flow and allowing characters to come off fully realized and grounded.

Levine wrote the “Last Gasp” not only because it was topical, but to send a message about the severity of Islamaphobia. It also was meant to nudge readers to wade in a pool of possible “what ifs.”

“Basically the idea just came up, what if a right-winged government staged a terrorist attack?” Levine said.

“Once I had that idea, plot details kind of unfolded as we went along.”

Levine’s novel also encourages readers to take a closer look at fundamentalism in religion, and how spiritual texts can be used to hurt others.

“Well, first I hope that (readers) enjoy it and feel like it was worth their time to read it,” Levine said. “And I hope they take away the fact that intolerance — and religious intolerance — is something that we need to overcome in our country and the world, because it leads to grief. And to death.”

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