CAPITAL JOURNAL : Insider Writes Novel About Sex, Lies and Politics

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A spicy new novel about life in the state Capitol, written by the former wife of a backbench assemblyman, is sending legislators, staff members and lobbyists scrambling to plunk down $24.95 to reserve their copies even before they hit bookstores.

The first novel by Linda Proaps, a onetime legislative aide who was married to Long Beach Democrat Dave Elder, may never win any literary prizes, but it could enjoy brisk sales in the city where its lurid action unfolds.

The book, "Capitol Punishment," describes, among other things, philandering California lawmakers who exploit female staff members sexually and use them in other ways to advance their careers.

Proaps says the events she portrays happened, based on her observations during more than 11 years as a Capitol insider, although the characters are fictional.

Given a taste of her political Peyton Place in a local newspaper column recently, Sacramentans have been placing orders in advance of the release of the book in late March. The Sacramento-based publisher, Lexicon Publishing, reports that it has received orders for about 750 books, including more than 100 from individuals who have reserved copies.

Meanwhile, the author is achieving a measure of local prepublication fame. Proaps, 43, a Sacramento lawyer, has been invited to speak this month to the Sacramento Press Club, usually a forum for heavyweight politicos. When the book comes out, a book signing and a local television appearance are scheduled.

Interest in a book about sleaze in Sacramento, however fictional, comes at an opportune time for the author, but not so opportune for the Legislature's image, already tarnished by an ongoing federal political corruption investigation that has led to convictions of two former state senators. Moreover, lawmakers are reeling from passage last November of Proposition 140, which placed limits on their terms.

In reading an advance copy of the book, it is unclear to what extent Proaps was inspired by actual events. In an interview, Proaps denied that the book was inspired by her bitterness over a failed marriage, but rather spoke of venting "frustration" at the Legislature as an institution.

Whatever her motivation, Proaps paints a morally bleak picture of legislative shenanigans that take place when the public is not looking. Her fictional politicians are playboys who use their public offices to run law practices, operate consulting businesses and call their bookies. One lawmaker watches pornographic movies on a video recorder purchased with campaign contributions.

One of the most unflattering portraits is of fictional Long Beach Assemblyman Eric Darcy, a married man who forces the book's heroine, his aide Stacy Dillon, into having an affair. She gets pregnant but refuses an offer to have an abortion paid out of Darcy's campaign funds.

Later, Darcy gets a divorce and marries Dillon, who observes later that "one key to survival as a political wife, besides being a doormat, was to be a charming and gracious ornament."

In real life, Proaps says that after she divorced Elder in 1989, a friend urged her to write a book to "tell it like it is" in the Capitol. Proaps says she was fed up that many lawmakers "get up there and portray themselves as wonderful family men and they are not."

Readers will find some references veiled, some transparent.

Just as five rebel Democrats, known as the "Gang of Five," unsuccessfully sought to topple the leadership of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), Proaps tells of a similar group of rebel lawmakers called the "Circle of Seven."

Several characters in the book bear unmistakable similarities to Proaps' onetime employers, including Speaker Brown, for whom she worked briefly, and the late state Treasurer Jesse M. Unruh, who appointed her to two positions after she left the Assembly's payroll.

Proaps says she did not want to write an expose aimed at individuals and that many of her characters are composites. She says her aim "wasn't necessarily to name names, as much as it was to talk about the institution" of the Legislature.

A sampling of reaction to "Capitol Punishment" followed a common theme:

* From Michael Reese, press secretary to Speaker Brown: "(Brown) doesn't read much fiction and really sees no reason to start now."

* From Proaps' ex-husband Elder, an assemblyman who has represented parts of Long Beach and South Bay since 1978: He said he was concerned about the impact the book will have on his children. For himself, "I have better things to do with my time than read novels."

Whether he reads them or not, the literary fallout for Elder may not end with "Capitol Punishment." Proaps says if this book succeeds, she has at least one more political novel in mind.

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