WASHINGTON WIVES By Maureen Dean Arbor House. 315 pp. $17.95

AFTER HER first book, Mo: A Woman's View of Watergate was published, Maureen Dean went on the record and boasted that she had not only not written it, but also not even read it. If Esquire had given her a Dubious Achievement Award, it would have been: Say What You Will About Her Husband, You Have to Admire Her Literary Taste. In the acknowledgements section of this, her first novel, Mrs. Dean thanks "the ghost who . . . lives in my bedroom." That would be John, whose own Blind Ambition was in fact written by Taylor Branch. It is therefore hard to know whom precisely to blame for Washington Wives.

"Washington," she begins, "is a city of dreams, great and small, of hopes both foolish and daringly grand." We are in Suite 910 of (where else?) the Hay-Adams. We are the chief of staff at the White House, and we are about to get jump-started by a woman who is not our wife. We are in the shower together and we have just gotten the soap where we want it when -- oh oh -- we have a heart attack and die. This leaves the woman who is not our wife in a bit of a pickle, poor thing. We do not know exactly who she is, but she is one of three . . . MUSIC, CLOSE-UP ON . . .

Jan Kirkland, prim and proper deputy chief of protocol and wife of the White House press secretary . . . or could it be . . . MUSIC BUILDING, CLOSE-UP ON . . .

Sinclare Ives, vixenish wife of a Washington "power broker" . . . or even . . . MUSIC LOUD, CLOSE-UP ON . . .

Caroline Riggs, dipso wife of . . . MARTIAL MUSIC . . . staff director of the National Security Council . . . CUT TO WHITE HOUSE, DAY. EXTERIOR.

VOICE OVER: One of these three women was doing the woolly deed with Bradford Barry in Suite 910. Now they they must vie among themselves to make their husbands the next White House chief of staff, and they don't particularly like each other, either.

For the next 315 pages we will travel aboard Air Force One with them, and drive in cars with telephones with them, and sleep in satin sheets with them as we explore this fascinating breed of women, heroines and harlets, strumpets and strudels, belles and beasts, delving deeper and deeper into the stickiness that is the . . . Washington Wives.

Mr. and Mrs. Dean live in Beverly Hills these days, and their Washington has a very definite Hollywood flavor to it. Practically everyone is being blackmailed by someone else, almost invariably with a videotape featuring boots, whips and garter belts. (I had no idea politics was such fun, Muffy! And here I thought they spent their whole time worrying about deficits and arms control!).

Physical description is accomplished by flashcard: "He looked somewhat like Gregory Peck -- or so he enjoyed being told"; "She looked like Grace Kelly"; within a single paragraph someone wears "wonderful F. Scott Fitzgerald clothes" while simultaneously "remind{ing} Jan of a picture . . . of the Duke of Windsor . . . "; and someone else has "the hair but not the face of folksinger Mary Travers." In case you were wondering about the nose: "Too many trips to the plastic surgeon in search of Tuesday Weld's nose had left her with a tiny protuberance." If a dog walked onto this set, it would have the coat of Rin-Tin-Tin and the demure, come-hither eyes of Lassie -- or so the bitch enjoyed being told.

The funny thing is that Mrs. Dean applies the same technique to houses. To wit, "The sprawling Hardaway ranch hadn't seen such a commotion for almost a decade -- since that movie company used the house as background in Giant." We get the picture.

Now, given her prior comments about work, Mrs. Dean would probably be the first to disavow the teensiest, weeniest literary pretension here. Still, it's hard to say what exactly the book is up to. As a romantic thriller it is, well, dweadful, and about as suspenseful as watching the renovation of Union Station. It sheds no light on how Washington really works, unless Howard Baker is at this moment threatening the Senate Judiciary Committee with attack videos of a significantly more lurid nature than appropriated Neil Kinnock speeches. And by the end there are so many silly plot complications that the only way out is -- literally -- to light a match on the whole thing.

And yet . . . and yet . . . anyone who enjoys the Bulwer-Lytton contest will delight in it. That is the annual competition, named after Edward George Earle Lytton, first baron Lytton and author of numerous 19th-century works, the best known of which is The Last Days of Pompeii. The committee awards prizes to the worst first sentences of imaginary novels. A collection of entries was recently published under the title, It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, after the immortal first sentence of one of the Master's lesser-known novels.

Herewith a very incomplete selection from Washington Wives, any one of which is proud enough to make the Bulwer-Lytton semifinals:

" 'The prince wants a beautiful blonde transvestite sent over to Blair House for tea this afternoon,' Jan repeated, trying to throw some humor into her tone." (Emphasis mine.)

"Gently she reached inside his forty dollar Egyptian cotton broadcloth boxer shorts."

"Oh Christ, Ian thought, looking away, if she cries with all that makeup she's going to look like a racoon."

"As the camera pulled back to show Sinclare being held under both arms by two burly agents, a wave of humiliation washed over Eliot from the back of his eyes down to his sphincter."

But in the end, Washington Wives is about more than just fellatio in high places. At its center is a voice, a cry heard along the banks of every civilization -- the Euphrates, the Tiber, the Potomac -- the voice that cries aloud from dreams great and small, with hope both foolish and daringly grand: "Sinclare wanted to get her legs waxed. To hell with it, seeing the tape was more important."

Christopher Buckley is the author of a novel, "The White House Mess," and of a play, "Campion".