One Woman Lost by Abigail McCarthy and Jane Gray Muskie (Atheneum: $15.95; 320 pp.)

Dolan, former editor of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C

It is, as veteran author Abigail McCarthy must understand well by now, extremely hard to make up stories about our nation's capital. What other place on this Earth so sternly defies fiction with fact? Even the best novel-writing about that complicated seat of world power has rarely competed successfully against Washington journalism. So it is that so many mediocre novels are churned out each year either by popcorn fiction writers or by Washington reporters who would do far better sticking to nonfiction.

William Safire is one who tried a novel and, happily for all of us, returned to journalism. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post wrote an account of the downfall of Spiro Agnew with political reporter Jules Witcover, which was riveting, and then proceeded to write a novel about a good guy senator (later played by Alan Alda in a movie), which was appalling mush. Literary historians maintain that the only true novel ever written about Washington was Henry Adams' "Democracy" in the 19th Century. Norman Mailer succumbed to the fact-over-fiction dilemma by creating a form of fictional history that was really embellished reporting and not novel-writing at all. But using it, he gave us the compelling "Armies of the Night."

Still, the novel of place has no pedigree in Washington. No one writes of Washington the way William Kennedy does of Albany, Saul Bellow of Chicago, Jim Harrison of Michigan or Anne Tyler of Baltimore. Those fiction writers who choose Washington as their setting write from on high, floating in the vaporous stuff of hyped-up power and intrigue, never finding a foothold on the ground.

The current slew of cloudy Washington works makes this conclusion inescapable. "Regrets Only" by Sally Quinn, "The White House Mess" by Christopher Buckley, "Pentagon" by Allen Drury--all can be tossed into a category my friend politely calls "slightly trashola" and listed under "typical Washington fiction." Indeed, as reporting in Washington has become more and more energetic and open, novel writing seems to get harder. A satire like "Democracy" seems a pallid set-piece when re-read today. What fiction writer would want to step up to challenge the story of "All the President's Men"? John Ehrlichman, a player turned creator, is one of many who shouldn't have tried.

We should be glad, however, that Abigail McCarthy and Jane Gray Muskie did try. These authors have feet firmly planted in the turf that is Washington. Both spent years as political wives, both were married to men who ran for the presidency, both knew victory and humiliation challenging established ideas at their husbands' sides. Collaborating for the first time as writers, the two women had a very strong idea for a novel in "One Woman Lost"--the story of a political wife who matures, develops her own ideology and is silenced by the men she threatens. It is a story that has a terrifying basis in fact (the haunting true tale of Martha Mitchell) and also offers a rich landscape for fiction.

"One Woman Lost," unfortunately, gets lost itself along the way. Celia Mann, wife of the vice president of the United States, is the center of the book, an inquisitive and loving woman who convincingly happens upon a peace movement group called Peace Works and begins to question the world she sees. Slightly to the right of Celia is the female President served by her husband: Lily Batchelder, who popped into prominence at the 1988 convention and believes in a sort of neo-con tough stance on foreign affairs. Far to the right is the Christian Worldwide Contra Movement, which is involved in a terrorist conspiracy.

Celia is drugged in a vain attempt to stymie her activities with Peace Works. Her physician brother and her husband administer migraine-inducing substances. Eventually she is imprisoned in a hospital, and members of a leftist front free her. Whereupon Celia discovers the limitations of the doctrinaire left, escapes and finally blows the whistle on an international time bomb about to go off in Canada. She's an enticing lady, this Celia, if one did not have to wade through so much filler to get to her. Every chip of history that made the galleys from the Bay of Pigs to the Duarte kidnaping to the space shuttle disaster is packed in. We are reminded, as if we needed to be, that Bangladesh was once part of Pakistan, etc., etc. The prose is as melodramatic and turgid as the information is superficial.

What gets lost in all this typical-Washington-novel hoopla is the wrenching center of the book where Celia, new-born idealist, adopted by a group of secretly activist nuns living in a strangely rural convent in the city, begins her own real re-discovery. The conversations between Celia and Sister Kathleen ask the questions about survival that these authors seem to want to ask. Their lyrical writing shows them up. Sister Kathleen to Celia: " 'Well, in this century we have come to see that we have to know the world in its pain--in all its pain--and all its wonder, too. We have to know, to contemplate that which we bring before Him. . . . We have to find the traces in the deformed image and the one half-formed, in the shattered, broken image and, yes, the reverse image which is evil--and hold them up, too.' 'I see,' said Celia, a little stunned. 'I think I see.' "

McCarthy and Muskie have written a readable book. Already better than the average Washington novel, it could have been--with more of what Celia was trying to see--the Washington novel that is still waiting to be written.

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