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Less Than Zero

There are a million stories in the naked city, but there appears to be only one story in Washington, D.C. Have you ever read a book set in the capital that was not related to government? Whereas any romantic entanglement, murderous scheme, or cloying period piece may be set in New York City, a plot set in Washington is by and large one of official intrigue, albeit involving a pretty girl. When was the last time you read a romance set in the cafes of Dupont Circle, with no conspiracy in the background?

Washington exists as a literary setting solely to establish a stock scene: politics. For this reason, the city itself is the main character of any story that takes place in it. In New York — or Chicago, or small-town Indiana, or San Francisco — we may have to learn about the characters, meet them, understand them, but in Washington we already have a leg up. They need be identified only by their job or their party. Washington is its own subgenre, complete with its own pop-culture commedia dell'arte cast: the brimstone-spewing, seersucker-wearing Southern senator; the ambitious, young, morally compromised staffer; the newly elected, do-gooder Democrat whose innocence will be broken by the end of the story; the ex-military spy with his variety of disguises, accents, gadgets, and aliases; the lithe environmental think-tank ideologue who is appalled by the hero at first but then is won over by his charm despite his — gulp! — realistic politics; and of course the powerful, fat-cat, sinister special-interests barons with their shellacked corporate offices, illegal cigars, and offers you can't refuse.

The popular appeal of the Washington novel, in other words, lies in its lack of originality. It is designed as a continuation, and in some ways a confirmation, of its readers' previous reading of newspapers and watching of television. And so it is with Brad Meltzer's latest best-seller, The Zero Game. With a hauntingly lit image of the Capitol against a night sky on the cover, one need not even read the novel to have a decent understanding of what this thriller (as opposed to, say, a Grisham thriller or a Crichton thriller) is about. There may not be a courtroom drama or a science experiment gone awry, but there will be a political scandal — perhaps at the highest level of government! — and it will be exposed by an earnest hero after doing a fair amount of running for his life. And yet people read on.

Enter "two jaded Capitol Hill staffers" — jaded, no doubt, from reading books like this one — who are involved in a clever little pastime, the "zero game," to while away the tedious hours spent waiting for votes to come in, bills to pass, and bloviating congressmen to get winded. So what is the ominous and enigmatic "zero game"? Well, it's really rather inane and uncomplicated. Our two jaded Capitol Hill staffers bet on small-time bills (they even have to cover the spread on vote margins), like whether or not baseball should be allowed an exemption from antitrust laws, with a secret society of other staffers. In fact, the society is so secret that no one knows who else is in it. There may even be senators in it! And yet people read on.

The society may be secret, but the game is wholly uninteresting. Given that it's the title of the book, I was expecting the "zero game" to be a bit more fascinating. In fact, it is nothing but the most banal and un-cryptic of vices: gambling. Now, one of our two jaded staffers, Matthew, works on the Appropriations Committee. In fact, Matthew tells us, "one of the dirtiest little secrets on Capitol Hill" is that, though congressmen may pass a bill, "it's not going anywhere without an Appropriator," that is, funding. I know, it's shocking. Washington's dirty secret is ... money. And guess what? Our Matthew one day finds himself in a position to appropriate funds for a land-sale project and thereby win a round of the "zero game." So Matthew and jaded staffer number two, Harris, throw all their savings at the land-sale bet. Long story short, Matthew is unceremoniously murdered, and Harris becomes our hero — by the way, he's now running for his life.

Enter the chick, Vivian, "one idealistic Senate page" who is unwittingly dragged into this mess. Vivian is African American, a choice Meltzer handles with all the subtlety of an andiron to the knees. When Vivian suggests code names for herself, her ideas include "Black Cat" and "Sweet Mocha." Get it? And you know what else is cute? She's 17 years old! And sassy. It's also really cute when she goes to North Dakota with Harris to check out this whole "land-sale project," to identify the depredation at the heart of this civics lesson. (Every Washington novel must also be a civics lesson.) OK boys and girls, can you say "kidnapping and taking a minor across state lines"?

Our villain is indeed a powerful corporate type: He's Barry, a lobbyist at the best firm in Washington, replete with the fancy offices I warned you about. Harris and Barry were great friends in college. This is the pathos. The device of making the protagonist and the antagonist connected in youth is an old but recently rediscovered one: Gregory Maguire portrays the Wicked Witch of the West as friends and boarding-school roommates with Glinda the Good Witch in his novel Wicked, and the WB's "Smallville" depicts a teenage Superman and Lex Luthor as high school peers. But Meltzer does not plumb this relationship much, except to note that in college Barry was always a little fearful that he was being left out. See, Barry is blind, and this apparently led him down the garden path of paranoia, where he succumbed to his neuroses and turned malevolent. This, too, is pathos. His journey into sightless psychosis starts with a political scandal but ends in violence. (Luckily, Viv ends up kicking his ass, screaming, "You really thought you had a chance? You can't see!" This is no longer pathos, but parable.) Barry's goon partner is one of those ex-military types who has a special heart-attack-inducing gadget and can win any fight he's in. They're a formidable team.

The book duly includes the usual chases, near-death experiences, and close calls one would expect. But Capitol Hill remains the touchstone of the novel, looming throughout as the epicenter of Harris and Sweet Mocha Vivian's world. It seems that every corridor, secret passageway, lawn, balcony, and fire escape on Capitol Hill (all strangely familiar to our hero) is trampled on by Harris and Viv whilst they run for their lives. (Every Washington novel is a carnival of locations.) So what's the government's secret? What's the big corporate scandal? Well, Meltzer has me here: It turns out that the U.S. government is totally innocent in this novel — even painfully naive. The reader is robbed of her encounter with a fire-and-brimstone Southern senator or a Clancy-esque hero-president, and as a result Meltzer has unexpectedly done something a little different with the political-thriller genre. By marooning every elected official on the outskirts of the plot while disgruntled staffers and lobbyists run the show, The Zero Game offers a more accurate reflection of contemporary America. After all, it is well-known in Washington that the staffers are the real powers.

You see, Yemen (that's right, think USS Cole; I'm sure Meltzer wants you to) hired the lobbyist to promote the land-sale bill. The land they bought? A huge mine right in the heart of North Dakota where they were cleverly turning neptunium into ... plutonium! Yes, the Yemenis had the outstanding temerity to actually do this on our own homeland, right under the noses of the preoccupied congressmen and gambling staffers. Meltzer preys on our rawest post-September 11 fears, making the question not why is The Zero Game popular now, but how could it not be? We are ripe for the picking. It's easy to say that Americans never really trust their politicians, but, as we have recently discovered, with a government too inattentive — or too blind, as Vivian would portentously say — to see the September 11 attacks coming, Meltzer has touched on the heart of our very latest fears. There weren't weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so why not put them in North Dakota? Maybe instead of policing our borders we ought to be taking a harder look at Utah and Oklahoma. If 19 men can usurp decades of stability on U.S. soil, imagine what can happen when a foreign government is sitting on tons of unaccounted-for, black-market plutonium floating around the United States. As the 9/11 Commission is busily showcasing just how blase the government can be in the face of heightened threats, Meltzer's premise is as ridiculous as it is primal — but suddenly a little understandable.

Meltzer has written a bad but germane book, a Washington pulp that holds a mirror up to Americans' real apprehensions. By subverting the expectation that the U.S. government will be directly involved in the scandal — instead it is merely unaware of it — Meltzer, perhaps even presciently, captures the current mood: Ignorance isn't bliss. And in its own way, this is valuable. Recognizing that passivity is dangerous (and that plutonium is currency) is a more subtle and more honest theme than the usual, more cold-war-era, hero-saves-America-from-brink-of-nuclear-disaster bit. But, because this is still a thriller, The Zero Game ends on a more smart-alecky note than its theme would imply. Meltzer has one last little trick up his sleeve: There is no "zero game." Stunning, no? Poor Matthew and Harris were merely duped into betting on bills for months — months! — so that ultimately Matthew would be inspired to appropriate the funding for the North Dakota land-sale project. Sucker.

Sacha Zimmerman is a frequent contributor to The New Republic

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