Running on Empty

By David Von Drehle
Thursday, November 10, 2005

A Time to Run

By Barbara Boxer with Mary-Rose Hayes

Chronicle Books, 368 pages

When a short, feisty, liberal senator writes a novel about a short, feisty, liberal senator, it's only natural for people to wonder: How much of this is real? Especially when the fictional senator is battling the nomination of a conservative to the Supreme Court -- just like the senator who wrote the story.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) anticipates this question in a "Dear Reader" message at the start of her first novel. "My story is not about me," she writes. But it is about her world, she promises. "For years, I've wanted to let people know the inside stories of politics: the way it works, the nuances of power . . . the true world of politics in all its glory and all of its ugliness."

That's a big pledge from a rookie novelist. Politics is a tough subject, judging from literary history. Countless page-turners have been mined from such topics as murder, war, adventure, money, broken hearts. But a great political novel is as rare as the fabled white buffalo, and even a good one is a surprise. Politics is mostly meetings and speeches, punctuated by dinners and car rides.

Dull, dull, dull.

Boxer's book is no white buffalo, or even a surprise. As she and writing partner Mary-Rose Hayes discovered (but not before hacking out two entire chapters about a single monotonous day of campaigning), there's not much juice to be squeezed from the demographics of Fresno and the intricacies of a mythical Commission on Children, Youth and Families. And so, like legions of Washington novelists before them, they fall back in despair on the usual atmospherics: bed-hopping, back-stabbing, bad faith and bureaucratic corruption.

"A Time to Run" is basically three plots, loosely related, stuck together with champagne and fornication. The first plot, which opens and closes the book, finds Sen. Ellen Downey Fischer, a big-hearted liberal from the Bay Area, in possession of secret files that could derail the confirmation of right-wing judge Frida Hernandez.

But wait! The files are fake, knowingly passed to the senator by her former friend and one-time lover. To explain why he would do such a thing, Boxer launches into plot number two, which takes her characters back 30 years to their days as Berkeley undergraduates.

This plot follows the classic Harlequin romance template: one woman, two men -- a brooding brunet and a broad-chested blond. The two men, Joshua Fischer and Greg Hunt, are best friends and college roommates, and both love young Ellen Downey. But which one will she choose? The one doomed to an early death? Or the one with a Terrible Secret?

Architecturally, this triangle surely comes from the hand of co-author Hayes, whose earlier work, according to Publisher's Weekly, has involved bisexual Svengalis, mystical gemstones, globe-trotting fashion models and characters with such names as "Victoria Raven."

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