Searching for That Sting

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Every journalist has a novel in him, said Karl Kraus, and if he's smart, he'll keep it there. Countless potboilers by deadline drudges have proved the wisdom of Kraus' pitiless warning. But with Primary Colors in 1996, Joe Klein made himself an exception to the rule. Klein's first novel managed to survive the gimmickry of its initial publication. It was released, as the world will recall, under the byline Anonymous, making Guess the Author a favorite parlor game along the Washington-Manhattan media axis. With its deft plotting, crackling dialogue and a raft of engaging characters, thinly veiled and drawn from real life, Primary Colors remains an essential document of the Clinton era.

It's a hard act to follow. The Running Mate (Dial Press; 403 pages; $26.95) is Klein's game attempt to keep the momentum going, a sequel of sorts. Charlie Martin, the new novel's hero, appeared briefly in the earlier book as a presidential candidate--a U.S. Senator from the Midwest, dismissed by the press as a hippie Vietnam Vet. Many characters from Colors do brief walk-ons in the new book, much as the star of a popular sitcom may help launch a spin-off. On TV, of course, spin-offs usually fail.

The Running Mate is by no means a failure, but it lacks the sharp sting of reality that made Primary Colors a success. At the center of Colors was Jack Stanton--a faux Bill Clinton as mesmerizing, repellent, glib, eloquent (take your pick) as the real thing. Charlie Martin can't carry that kind of weight. Decent, well-meaning, pragmatic, Charlie returns to his home state after his crash-and-burn presidential bid to run for a third Senate term. But he succumbs to unexpected distractions--including a romance with a glamorous Manhattan designer and the appearance of a previously unknown (surprise, Charlie!) illegitimate son. The most unexpected distraction of all: a tough re-election opponent named Lee Butler. Butler is the book's weakest link--the right-wing nightmare of a New Yorker political correspondent (Klein's day job). Butler launches his campaign with a series of Bible-study meetings, and he gets more Ralph Reedy from there. And you'll never guess: it turns out he's a hypocrite! In some literary precincts, apparently, this will be thought a clever twist.

But for the most part, Klein sustains the mastery of storytelling mechanics that he demonstrated in Colors. The plot accelerates to a fitting climax, goosed along by enough offhand apercus and knowing set pieces to satisfy any reader interested in The Way We Politick Now. If this reporter has more novels inside him, let them come.