The reviewer is the author of "Carrying the Fire" and "Flying to the Moon and Other Strange Places."

It is 1985. Jimmy Carter is a Baptist missionary in Africa. West Germany and Russia are teaming up against the United States. Frank Rogers, president of a California aerospace company selling an advanced cruise missile, is trying to stop them, but he is out of his league. So, unfortunately, is Paul Erdman this time. The crisp complexities of plot he showed in "The Crash of '79" are nowhere to be found in this simplistic look at international arms sales.

"No one but Paul Erdman brings to fiction such penetrating insight and knowledge of what is really happening in politics," gushes the flap copy. What is really happening is bribery: "Now let me tell you what bribery is really all about in the latter part of our 20th century." Frank Rogers goes on to explain that Philippines President Manuel Quezon bribed Douglas MacArthur in 1942 and the shah of Iran bribed Henry Luce in 1962. Sorry these people aren't still alive to present their side of the story. "The point of all this is to show that there is a type of bribery on a very high level which really produces results. It can actually change the path of history for the better."

Unfortunately for Frank, he is an amateur among professionals. The hero in this immorality play is willing to be as corrupt as his European playmates, but he never seems to get the hang of it. If Frank's opponents were fiendishly clever, I suppose we'd have here the makings of a first-class potboiler. But these wheeler-dealers seem quite ordinary -- even dull. The fact that they outwit Frank at nearly every turn is due more to his ineptness than to any brilliant maneuvering on their part. Of course, if the whole world is predictably corrupt, the author loses some options. In the land of the one-eyed, the blind man can't be king. The only character who remains aloof from this depressing tableau is Sabine von Planta, Frank's beauteous Swiss mistress. She could rescue the reader from this sordidness if only she were given a few decent lines, and not just a name that sounds like a crop vaccine. Unlike most mistresses, Sabine (she doesn't even have a nickname) ends up kitchen buddies with Frank's wife, sharing him conversationally at least. Each deserves better.

This book does work well in some ways. It flows nicely, and Erdman's hand is quick, sure and steady. The characters are believable, barely, and the plot describes cruise missile strategy accurately enough to permit Erdman to insert an occasional zinger without causing the reader to balk. Working just four years in the future allows the author the luxury of creating an imaginary world without having to work too hard on new ideas or technology or people.

Are "The Last Days of America" only four years away? No, not even in the last pages of this book are things that grim. But it's a catchy as well as grandiose title, a lot more marketable than "The Last Days of NATO," which is what it really describes. "The Crash of '79" may have been eerily prophetic, but this time I believe it is Paul Erdman who, like an errant cruise missile far off its target, has crashed.