The problem with this thriller is that it doesn't thrill you very much. It doesn't because . . . well, it's hard to put your finger on exactly why not: after all, the writing is smooth enough and you can see the author has gone to a lot of trouble to get in plenty of gritty spy details that engage your interest here and there, and there's a satisfying 30 pages or so of Manhattan chase scene at the end. But there are so many near-absurdities in plot and characterization, so much crazy politics crammed in everywhere, and so many motives, feelings and relationships that don't quite ring true, that the reader is constantly struggling--and in my case, anyway, failing--to keep disbelief suspended.

The story is a kind of Watergate II. Joe Ball, a burned-out CIA man fired after years of leading Hmong armies in the Laotian mountains, is hired by the CIA as a free lance to infiltrate the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Ball is told that it's a long-range plan: the agency wants its own candidate to win in 1984 so that, in the words of his recruiter, Paul Lazard, the CIA can get "the whole loaf. We've lost enormous ground. NSA the National Security Agency now consumes 80 percent of the appropriated intelligence budget." Ball accepts the job, although, since he has millions in jewels and gold stashed away from smuggling heroin in Laos, it is not clear why.

Never mind. Ball duly infiltrates the DNC, becoming an advance man in the Carter campaign, and soon finds himself the tool of a crazy, right-of-Reagan plot to destabilize the American political process so that, in 1984, the crazy right-wingers, led by Sen. Dan McCagg, can take over the country. (The earlier business about the CIA getting the whole loaf was just a cover.) "Take Hitler. I'm no fan, but I hafta say he had an acute grasp of power," the cigar-puffing McCagg tells Ball. He goes on to say, "Power, money, and sex, Joe. Get it? That's all you need to know. And don't pick your nose at the wrong time." The author then notes that, "Joe nodded. He knew." I suppose conversations like this take place, and that truth is stranger than fiction but, nonetheless, an author's cynicism in such awesome proportions tends to come off not smart and skeptical, but merely stupid.

Much of the book is devoted to the relationship between Ball and his 16-year-old son, Billy. In the end, as the title, which seems to herald a work of juvenile fiction, hints, Billy rescues his father from all this madness by fielding his own streetwise "army." That is fine. But throughout the book, it is nearly impossible to make heads or tails out of the nature of the relationship between these two.

For example, some 70 pages before Ball's conversation with McCagg takes place, McCagg's agents--including Lazard and the beautiful Diane--have a thug torture and professionally beat Billy, then force him to choke out over the telephone to Ball an anguished "Daddy?" Ball's reaction to this is improbable and inappropriate. Far from getting angry, his habitual anger dies down. He pals around with the torturers of his son, banters with them, passes up opportunities to call Billy to see if he's all right, and sleeps with Diane, with whom he is falling in love and to whom he gives an expensive emerald. She wears it in her belly button right to the bitter end, even, the reader cannot help but imagine, when she is arranging later in the book to have Ball himself professionally tortured.

Nowhere does the author suggest that Ball is doing all this cleverly to get on top of the situation in order to win in the end. Ball, you get the feeling, is simply a morally bankrupt man going from bad to worse. You have trouble feeling anything at all for him and, in the end, although saved, he seems no more sympathetic a character. Throughout, the author's intentions are never made clear and the reader is left to scramble from one doubtful episode to the next.

Some of the best thrillers are loaded with their authors' sometimes feverish political notions, whether of the left or the right: one thinks immediately of David Morrell and Geoffrey Household, somewhat to the left of center, or of William F. Buckley Jr., somewhat to the right. The failure of "Billy's Army" is not that its villains are wild-eyed extremists, but that the author fails intelligently and meticulously to weave plot and character into that seamless, believable and satisfying fabric that, as they say, will keep you up late into the night turning pages.