THE SUN KING

By David Ignatius

Random House. 305 pp. $21.95

Reviewed by John Katzenbach

The Sun King of Washington Post op-ed columnist David Ignatius's intriguing new novel of the same name is a mysterious billionaire who arrives on the shores of the District of Columbia like Columbus arriving in the New World. He plants his flag at the city's preeminent newspaper and attempts to conquer a world that is far different from any he has previously known. But before long, all the golden promise of this adventure starts to turn to brass, and the explorer who thought he was discovering a new world instead finds himself enmeshed in intrigue, jealousy and failure that are as old as the rocks he uses to customize the walls of his opulent estate.

That title character is one Sandy Galvin, Harvard dropout, rumored CIA operative, a man who has made his fortune in the high-stakes gambling world of commodities, first establishing himself in the Far East, then making millions playing on the fringes of the world, in Iraq and Russia and parts of Africa. Galvin is strikingly handsome, urbane and accomplished. He sees Washington as merely another field on which to play games for which he creates his own set of rules. This naivete is at the core of both his rise and his eventual downfall, for the Capital and in particular the high-powered confluence of the government and the media play a game far different (and arguably nastier) than do Russian gangsters or Third World despots, the types that Sandy Galvin has handled with ease.

The novel is narrated by David Cantor, a likable society journalist-cynic (it's not that hard to tell which is more important to his life, cynicism or journalism). Cantor encounters Galvin just as the billionaire begins his meteoric rise, and comes along for the ride as a sometime informant, jack-of-all-trades and factotum, gossip columnist and Lifestyle editor, but mostly as an observer of the collision that is destined to take place. Complicating the situation is Candace Ridgway, the foreign editor of the fictional Washington Sun and Tribune, and many years earlier Galvin's college lover. That Galvin still loves the woman known throughout Washington journalistic circles as "The Mistress of Fact" is inevitable.

In short order, Galvin takes over the sturdy but unimaginative Sun and Tribune, deftly ousting the families that have owned the paper for decades. He installs himself as owner and publisher and begins to re-make the paper in his own vision. What was once gray and relatively lifeless starts to take on initiative and excitement. Galvin wants the paper to be noticed. He wants energy and zip. He wants the paper to actually be as important as it already rather stuffily believes itself to be. And he wants it to make more money. To this end, he begins to install innovations -- bingo, lottery games, front page editorials, a cable television show -- that all speak of something new and something modern. At the same time, he tries to align himself with the mayor of the District, a handmaiden to the oldest and most venerated types of corruption. The publisher who sees himself as a force for good and a newspaper that insistently ferrets out what is bad are destined for conflict. The ethics of journalism (a wondrous phrase, filled with odd ironies) smash headlong into the underlying corruption of the city and the people Galvin has connected with.

Galvin falls into the miasma of politics at the same time that his runaway love for Candace Ridgway leads him into decisions that compromise all he thinks he wants. Love and politics are awful partners, and little good can come of their conjunction. And indeed, little good does, for the Sun King.

David Ignatius is a writer of subtle skills and low-key prose. As a veteran Washington newshound, he is intimate with the world he describes through the Nick Carraway-like eyes of his narrator. The Sun King, both in style and temperament, resembles Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, but does not suffer too heavily from the comparison. Both novels are about outsiders trying to penetrate a society that is beyond their reach. And in each, a kind of obsessive love is instrumental in bringing about the main character's downfall.

The Sun King is a novel that Washington's current residents, both in the business of government and in the world of the media, will find filled with the familiar, presented in an engaging manner, replete with wry and accurate observation. It has humor and style. If, in the end, it has substantially more modest aspirations than the memorable novel it will be compared with, this is not an altogether terrible thing. For even if ultimately lesser than Gatsby, The Sun King still provides much, delivered in quick-paced, energetic and sophisticated fashion.

John Katzenbach is the author of seven novels, the latest of which is "Hart's War."