Once upon a time, Allen Drury was a pretty fair journalist. Then he wrote a novel called "Advise and Consent," won a Pulitzer and became a habitual perpetrator of novels. In his 13th novel (and 18th book), he proves -- not for the first time in his career -- that it is possible to write a deadly dull novel about a global nuclear confrontation.

"The Hill of Summer" is set in 1987, give or take a year or two. On July 4th of whatever year it is, the president dies. His successor, stalwart, square-jawed Vice President Hamilton Delbacher, promptly begins the thankless work of undoing years of spineless, liberal appeasement of the Soviet beast. Almost as soon as he takes office, he begins throwing his weight around in international power politics -- though that weight has declined sadly since the years when the United States was by far the strongest nation in the world.

Domestically, the country has been slowly getting used to creeping inflation and a chronic power crisis. Outside our borders, the picture is one of gradual encirclement by forces loyal to Moscow. The dominoes are falling in Central America as they did a decade earlier in Southeast Asia; Communist and chaos are nibbling away at Africa despite the valiant, isolated efforts of the South African government; revoluntionary movements are undermining whatever stability there was in the oil-producing states of the Middle East -- but not Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, where the Soviets are in control.

NATO is in political disarray, Italy has become a "people republic," and even if Europe could bet together for military action, many of its weapons are obsolescent. Even such strudy governments as Norway and Greenland are being assailed by Moscow inspired opposition movements; South Korea and the Philippines have fallen. And the Soviet armed forces are generally recognized as the largest and best-equipped in the world.

Clearly, Delbacher has his work cut out for him -- but he is not completely helpless: the Joint Chiefs are rock-solid, he has a few good men in Congress, and there is a $10 billion appropriation for an emergency arms buildup which was given to his predecessor by somehow never used. is it all hopeless? It takes more than 400 pages to determine that it probably is -- but you will have to get Allen Drury's next book to find out for sure. In this one, the two powers spend their whole time moving ponderously toward their final, inevitable confrontation.

As it always does with new American presidents, Russia subjects Delbacher to a few tests of nerve and will early in his administration. he gets through these with high marks from Allen Drury though with some public relations losses, but the Bolshevik monolith is not scared off or appeased. Under the dynamic leadership of Yuir Pavlovich Serapin, the latest successor to Stalin, the pressure increases inexorably through the book. In the closing pages, as China begins a rapprochement with the Soviet Union, it looks tough for the good guys.

This is not a hopeless scenario for a novel -- a literary form which has a mandate to entertain its readers before it can hope to enlighten their minds or move thier wills in any significant way. Douglas Terman, to name only one novelist, has managed to base two gripping pieces of work on the premise of Soviet-American nuclear confrontation. The trouble is that is that Drury's novels have no real characters -- only political cartoons in black and white, moving around and making stereotyped noises and gestures. The problem may also be that his worst villains may not be the Russians (for whom he seems to have a grudging kind of admiration) but domestic liberals.

Allen Drury shows little interest in anything but the forms, styles and dynamics of political activity in the two systems, democratic and totalitarian, which are struggling for control of the world. He catalogues the minutiae of political processes -- including speeches in Congress and newspaper headlines and editorials -- with a thoroughness that might be commendable if it were not so doggedly dull. The final effect of reading his novel is curiously like an overdose of The Congressional Record. The book may deserve judgement on its value as prophecy or editorial comment rather than as fiction -- but so far, on verifiable events, Drury's status as a prophet does not look good. At least two events have happened since he finished writing the book that seriously undermine his view of what it may be like in the late 1980s: the election of Ronald Reagan and the remarkable events of the last year in Poland.

Underlying the pages of rhetoric, poeturing, geopolitics and figures on armaments, the central question of "The Hill of Summer" is whether a democratic society can survive and prevail in intense competition with a totalitarian society. History gives a spotty set of answers to this question -- although at least sometimes, from Thermopylae to World War II, the answer has been yes. The tone of Drury's novel indicates that his private answer, at least in the present confrontation, may be no. If so, the honest thing for him to do in his sequel would be to have Hamilton Delbacher institute a military dictatorship in the United States, rally his resources out-nasty the Russkies, and march to triumph. That may be the final answer to the challenges confronting us, though it seems a poor way to preserve democracy.