By Reed Karaim

Norton. 310 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Louis Bayard

In an age when twice-divorced congressmen can sponsor legislation called the Defense of Marriage Act, one might suppose that politics has slipped out of fiction's reach. Could even a DeLillo or a Pynchon have dreamed up Monica, for example, the Sadie Thompson of Beverly Hills, or that cigar-smoking president with the sprinkler-system eyes? And yet writer after writer keeps trying to gild the soiled lily of American governance. The latest contender -- and one of the most promising -- is journalist Reed Karaim, whose novel If Men Were Angels falls outside the usual schools of satire and paranoid melodrama. It is something, in fact, much rarer: a serious book about the making and unmaking of presidents.

Thomas Hart Crane wants to be leader of the free world. His problem? He's an unknown Illinois senator who's still struggling with Campaigning 101 stuff (like how to avoid being upstaged by a dog). No one gives him a snowball's chance of getting past the New Hampshire primary. But then storefront preacher Lucas Wain tries to crash a candidates' debate, and in the ensuing uproar Crane grabs the spotlight by publicly extending a welcoming hand. "We've got nothing to be afraid of from each other," he declares, and that note of reconciliation is enough somehow to jump him to the front of the pack. Within days, the candidate is traveling the country, "trailing a phosphorescent glow, for television was falling in love with Thomas Crane. . . . his angular frame, crooked smile, the perfect miniature of his wife, his midwestern gift for clarity, the gentle irony with which he often seemed to observe his circumstances."

Crane also has a history dripping with pathos. He grew up poor in the Illinois mining town of Berthold and had to hitch rides every day to Catholic school in Springfield. Once he got there, it was a straight climb: class presidency, Ivy League, military service, Congress. Your basic too-good-to-be-true guy, as reporter Cliff O'Connell discovers when he catches Crane lying about a return visit to Berthold. Cliff knows he should chase the story, but truth to tell, he kind of likes Crane. And even more to the point, Cliff's ex-girlfriend is now working for the Crane campaign, and if Cliff can stay on her good side, there might be a reconciliation in their future. So should he follow his heart or his ethics? And can he even separate the two?

One of the pleasures of If Men Were Angels lies in how quickly it distances itself from the cheesy political thrillers that have been blighting our screens and shelves lately. After a hundred pages, I was almost childishly grateful that no one was going to be assassinated for stumbling too close to The Truth. I was grateful, too, for the book's knowing portrait of the campaign trail. Karaim covered the 1992 race for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, and he's particularly good on the hollowness of political stagecraft and what he calls "the endless variety of the American midway: the girl who brought [Crane] a model of the White House made completely of twist ties; the man pushing a wooden cross in a wheelbarrow across America who paused to offer his blessing; the ice fisherman who asked Crane to hold the line while he ducked behind the cabin to take a leak; the mechanic who wanted to arm wrestle for his vote."

The only time the prose goes awry is when Karaim pushes too hard for portentousness -- maybe he's read that last line of The Great Gatsby once too often. But he's a painstaking craftsman who has buffed every sentence to a chromium shine and fashioned scenes that a Hollywood scenarist would envy. If Men Were Angels is a good, honorable, absorbing novel, full of complex people and deeply refracted experience. And so it seems churlish to argue that it's not completely convincing -- at least not at its fulcrum. For Thomas Crane's odyssey founders on a "guilty secret" that's been swirling through electoral politics since the days of Jefferson and Cleveland -- a secret that, far from threatening anybody's campaign, would more likely net a multimillion-dollar book advance and a reservation on Barbara Walters's settee.

In a sense, then, politics really has left fiction behind. Even a decade ago, the morality-play shadows of Karaim's geopolitical universe would have looked quaint. Viewed from the Age of Monica, they look almost Edwardian. The lesson we all take with us into the 21st century is the sheer logistical difficulty of ruining anyone -- accuser or accused. Our outrage isn't dead exactly; it's just being husbanded for a really special occasion.

Louis Bayard is the author of the novel "Fool's Errand," which has just been published.

Excerpt from If Men Were Angels

THE CRANE for President campaign ran its first attack ad the following week, a thirty-second spot that opened with a black-and-white shot of a school in Wyoming where chemicals seeping into the water had left twenty-seven children seriously ill. The ad went on to tie the administration to one of the worst groundwater pollution cases in the nation's history. The spot ran in the West and was paid for by an independent political organization, maintaining the tissue-thin fiction that the campaign was not responsible. It could have provoked a backlash, but the press, which can rarely think of more than one thing at a time, was already caught up in the countdown to the debate.

Those who managed Crane's campaign used their success with the ad to press for more change, and so there came a night when he sat in a hotel room watching a chart of the public's affection for his every word displayed on a television screen. We are all undone by the vagaries of love, and maybe it was too much to expect him to be different.

They played him a dial poll, in which a selected sample of voters watches a speech or ad on television and registers approval or disapproval by turning hand-held dials. The results are superimposed along the bottom of the videotape, so moment-by-moment emotional reaction can be measured. The possibility that the voters might go home, spend a night thinking about things, and change their minds is a quaint notion to modern political handlers.

Steven Duprey told this on the condition he could not be identified and the story could not be used until at least a week after the debate, but he told it well. Crane with his tie undone and his feet up, sitting in an easy chair, following the graph climbing and dipping at the bottom of the tape. They played and replayed slightly different wordings he had used while talking about the economy and, as the strange pulse ticked along at the bottom of the screen, Duprey said you could feel Crane's heart reluctantly, inevitably, start to keep time.

"Play it again," he said.

And they did, repeatedly, until they winnowed all the words he had said . . . down to a handful of sentences. . . . .