SPECIAL INTERESTS

By Linda Cashdan

St. Martin's. 372 pp. $18.95

NOVELISTS BEWARE: There's not much happening in Washington these days that could justify so-called epic sweep. A television series or, at best, the docudrama, is regrettably the artform that matches the scale of events currently taking take place here. Advertisers may yet still claim this to be "the most important city in the world," but let's face it, these days we're better captured by "Murphy Brown" than Gore Vidal.

With this in mind, Linda Cashdan's first novel, Special Interests, could not come at a more opportune moment. Its scale is modest, with greater emphasis on the girl-reporter-meets-boy-lawyer love interest than on any of the larger issues it engages: politicians corrupted by money, journalists squeezed between ambition and loyalty. It has certain ephemeral charms, but does little to illuminate in a three-dimensional manner what it is we do in Washington and why it is we do it. Whole elements of the plot could easily be dropped into an episode of "Mancuso, FBI," and there isn't much in the way of larger meaning. Sort of like Washington, circa spring 1990.

With the 1986 Tax Reform Act less a dramatic backdrop than ambient noise, Special Interests is the story of Cynthia Mathews, a long-legged blonde radio reporter from Indiana intent on making her mark. People sit up and notice when Cynthia does in her very own boyfriend, a sleazy K Street lawyer, in a Regardie's-like magazine expose'.

Trying to get over the hurt of having broken up with the poor sleazebag into whose back she's shoved her shiv, Cynthia goes to the quintessential mini-series Washington power party to meet a new mate, but stops off on her way there to interview the powerful Sen. Frederick Barker.

Barker is a central-casting, silver-haired liberal, up for re-election and vulnerable as he mourns his wife's recent death. During the course of a boozy interview, he lets slip -- no, he fairly blurts out -- that he's taking special interest money to insert provisions into the finance committee's tax bill mark-up. One is shocked, shocked, to find such goings on in Washington, but even more surprised that a senator would feel remorseful enough to confess to a reporter.

Putting aside the decision on whether to use this gift the senator has dropped in her lap, Cynthia heads to that party and meets Jed Farber, a lawyer like her previous boyfriend, but this one an honorable divorced daddy who spends time with his kids.

Together with a waif from El Salvador that they meet on the streets of Adams-Morgan, Jed and Cynthia expose a scheme by one of Jed's own clients to set illegal immigrants to work in a veritable toxic waste dump in the Maryland suburbs. Actually, this major subplot of Special Interests would be perfect for an episode of "Mancuso, OSHA," for it is, in fact, the occupational Safety and Health Administration which comes to the rescue after Cynthia blows the whistle on Jed's client. MEANWHILE, the interview in which the senator confessed swapping campaign contributions for transition rules in the tax bill mysteriously makes its way into the senator's hometown newspaper, making Jed, who used to work for Barker, suspect that Cynthia did to the senator (and by extension, him) what she'd done to her previous boyfriend. Will they get through this and find happiness in Power City?

The answer, happily, is yes, and there are other happy endings to Special Interests, not least of which being that despite the plot synopsis, Linda Cashdan shows definite promise as a novelist. So there are termites in her dialogue. So while juggling the ball of the illegal factory she drops the ball of the illegal campaign contributions. Still she proves she can tell a tale and keep the reader turning the page.

Her characterization of Barker, and especially his sense of loss in the face of his wife's death, is quite powerful. "Strange how the death of the weaker half of the marriage partnership -- the death of the dependent half -- had somehow made the stronger half fall apart. Strange what a burden freedom had turned out to be. Liberated, at last, to live, eat and sleep politics, he had not only lost interest -- he had gone out of his way to kill his career."

She gets many of the little details right, especially those having to do with life in Adams-Morgan, or the social rituals of Washington parties, which are far more work than play. At a Senate hearing on a trade bill, Barker notices all the Japanese reporters and photographers who've glommed onto the prime press seats. "Well, that said it all, didn't it? The Japanese had even amassed a journalistic surplus."

Cashdan has a good novel ahead of her, one where she concentrates on her characters and on real life, not on a much too fabulous series of petty conspiracies in a made-for-television version of the capital city. In the meantime, for all its flaws, you could do far, far worse than read Special Interests.

John Buckley's second novel, "Statute of Limitations," will be published in August.