David Baldacci has seen the savage reviews of his five novels about how Washington works.

"Baldacci isn't as smooth a writer as Grisham," said Publishers Weekly of Baldacci's fourth novel, "The Simple Truth," which is No. 2 on this week's Washington Post paperback bestseller list.

"As for storytelling," one New York Times reviewer observed, "Mr. Baldacci is as amateurish as an untrained puppy."

Of "Saving Faith," his new lobbyist thriller released last week, the trade journal Kirkus Reviews opined, "Graceless prose and shaky plotting don't help, but it's those tacky, comic-strip villains that really do in the suspense." Yesterday the book hovered around No. 24 on the Amazon bestseller list.

Despite his raging success as one of Washington's best-selling novelists ever, the critical slams bother Baldacci--especially the thrum-thrum-thrum of thumbs-down from Kirkus Reviews. "Every single book, they've trashed," he says. "It's me they don't like."

Which is hard to believe because the 39-year-old Washingtonian is a mild-mannered, ever-smiling family man who has worked his way up to the pinnacle of the publishing world.

Some might call it a case of: when bad prose happens to good people.

Plenty of people love Baldacci's fiction. There are more than 17 million copies of his novels, in more than 30 languages, in print worldwide. "Saving Faith," his fifth novel, has a first printing of 600,000.

He has received some favorable reviews. He says Irish writer Maeve Binchy, author of "Tara Road," dropped him a fan letter saying that she had to hide his books in her house so she could get her own writing done.

Paramount Television chose him--along with Ken Follett and Robert B. Parker--to write a new "Mystery!"-like series.

Baldacci is popular because "he is a very interesting storyteller," explains his editor Maureen Mahon Egen, who also happens to be president of Time Warner Trade Publishing. "There's always a purpose to the tales. With 'Saving Faith,' you understand lobbies and how lobbyists work."

And, she says, "his books are about the nation's capital. He loves Washington. He's fascinated by the details of Washington life--the people who live there and work there. The real lifeblood of the city. The Supreme Court folks, the lobbyists, the FBI."

On a recent afternoon, Baldacci shows up for a lesson in the real way Washington works. It is a prestigious reception. It is in the U.S. Capitol. It features tons of congressmen. And it's in Baldacci's honor.

But who pulled the strings to make it happen?

Was it Warner Books? There are boxes of free copies of Baldacci's book that he is cheerfully signing. But there are no Warner Books posters on the ugly white walls, no logo-laden name tags. Baldacci even brought the books in with his own hand truck.

Was it Rep. John Baldacci (D-Maine), one of three members of Congress mentioned on the invitation? Politicos crunch-munch on broccoli and listen to soft-spoken David Baldacci explain that he and the congressman from Maine are distant cousins. Not exactly close enough to come up with this.

Whatever. Everyone's having a grand time.

Especially one beaming, gregarious man in an expensive gray suit.

David Baldacci, in a tweed jacket, terra-cotta shirt, olive slacks and leather mesh loafers, basks in the prate and the praise. He explains that writing isn't something that comes easily to him, and the new book is about what fascinates him--the way Washington works. His manners are Southern courtly. His wife, Michelle, hands him a cup of coffee.

"I haven't read any of your books," admits one congressman, "but I want one for my wife." Baldacci says that's okay and cheerfully autographs the flyleaf.

Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) does not know Baldacci's work, but he, too, wants a free read. Baldacci signs away.

Though some of today's guests haven't read Baldacci, lots and lots of folks have. "Congratulations!" says Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "I'm a fan!"

After her book is signed, she says to no one in particular, "Don't you love to read novels?" One of her favorites, she says, is "Absolute Power," Baldacci's first. Published in 1996, it jetted to No. 1 on major bestseller lists and was made into a forgettable movie by and with Clint Eastwood.

Maggie Knutson, a kind-faced woman who works for House Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss (R-Fla.), is hooked on political and legal mysteries. Clutching a copy of "Saving Faith," she says she loves the work of Baldacci, John Grisham and James Patterson, especially the way Patterson uses the last sentence of one chapter to lead you to the next. She has read all of Baldacci's novels, but for the life of her, she says, out of earshot of the author, she doesn't remember enough about his other books to say what she liked.

A World Full of Irony

So some critics don't like his writing and some readers don't remember his novels all that well. Baldacci's smarting all the way to the bank. "Absolute Power" alone has brought in more than $5 million.

He and Michelle and their two young children live in a plushly appointed home in Vienna. They travel all over the world. They vacation each year in Maine and stop by to visit fans George and Barbara Bush in Kennebunkport.

Not too shabby for a son of the working class.

The youngest of three children, David Baldacci (pronounced ball-DAH-chee) was born in 1960. His father worked as a big-rig foreman for a trucking firm. His mother was an operator at the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. The family lived in what he describes as "cookie-cutter postwar" housing in a "blue-collar neighborhood" near the state fairgrounds in Richmond.

The capital of Virginia was "full of characters," he says, and a great place for a writer to grow up. He remembers a man who worked with his father and could toss massive truck tires around like toys. "I thought he was the strongest man in the world," Baldacci says. And he recalls a short, bearded "preacher man" in a snap-brim hat who witnessed door-to-door and drove a motor home that was larger than the house Baldacci grew up in.

He remembers hearing people talk about the omnipotent political influence of the Harry Byrd machine.

Back then, the world was full of irony, Baldacci says. The road to the city dump was called Tuxedo Boulevard. And though his family was a part of the small, close-knit Italian community, Baldacci always felt somewhat estranged. Most of his friends belonged to the Catholic Church; he was raised a Baptist.

Baldacci worked his way through Virginia Commonwealth University with a jumble of jobs. By day, he washed and detailed 18-wheelers; by night, he was a Pinkerton security guard. As a freshman, Baldacci read John Irving's rollicking novel "The World According to Garp" and decided that he wanted to be a novelist. He says he never planned to make any money at it.

After VCU, Baldacci went on to law school at the University of Virginia. He was hired by a Washington firm, Casson, Calligaro & Mutryn, as a trial lawyer. He wound up as part of a 450-member behemoth, Holland & Knight.

"He had a good demeanor, especially representing emerging companies," recalls Bill Mutryn. "He was very adept at writing contracts and corporate organizational documents. He worked very hard and was liked by all clients."

Mutryn adds, "I don't know when he wrote those books."

At night. Chugging along on four hours of sleep a night, Baldacci continued to write.

Before joining Holland & Knight, he met Michelle, a paralegal from Michigan. They were introduced at a vegetarian barbecue. She insulted him all evening about being a Washington lawyer.

She's a few years younger than Baldacci and determined not to let success split them up. Straight up, she says, "He knows what it's going to cost him for a trophy wife."

Back to His Roots

The Baldaccis live a charmed life--a pool in the backyard, a Suburban in the driveway, season tickets to the Redskins and a man who blows fallen leaves from their deck. "We've been really fortunate," Michelle says.

The vaulted-ceiling home office where Baldacci writes has leather chairs, a hardwood floor, a large oak desk and a suit of armor in the corner. It's cluttered with memorabilia--a box of presidential golf balls from a Secret Service agent, a Civil War musket and, on the desk beside the Dell laptop, old black-and-white photos from Baldacci's mother's family. Her father is a dour-faced, weather-etched man from the hardscrabble mountains of Virginia, a hard and far cry from his pleasant-mannered multimillionaire grandson.

There's a generous side to the writer. Baldacci helps raise money for various charities such as Virginia Blood Services. "He is a wonderful person," says Bob Carden, president of the Richmond nonprofit blood center. Baldacci has even held blood drives in conjunction with book signings--customers who give blood can move to the front of the line.

The family pictures on his desk, Baldacci says, serve as inspiration for his next book, which has a working title of "Wish You Well." It's a departure for Baldacci, a tale of the rural South that culminates in a dramatic courtroom scene, as in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Baldacci has studied that novel and the movie. Harper Lee's story, he says, works as both "because the confines of that book are so narrow--one street, one town, one tale."

The new novel, he says, will be more literary than his others.

Editor Egen is excited about the book. "I think the story comes from his own passion," she says. "He's going back to his roots, his mother's roots. It is a visit back to somebody's past."

Ever the Insider

Near the end of the hour-long Capitol Hill reception, Baldacci says goodbye to his distant cousin John, the congressman. The two men have traced their roots back to the Italian village of Lucca. The novelist has brought great honor to the family name, the congressman says.

Most of the books are gone, and the politicians have returned to their chores.

That's when the beaming man in the gray suit steps forward.

It turns out he is Robert M. Schule of the Wexler Group, a high-end government affairs operation with clients such as Atlantic Richfield, British Airways and Burger King. This little afternoon gathering was his idea. He put it together. Warner Books provided the copies; Schule's staffers passed them out, wrote down the names of the bigwig guests, made sure the cheese plate looked inviting.

Who is Bob Schule? He's a neighbor of the Baldaccis. A frequent guest in their home. He is married to a great cook. He knows wine.

He also knows Washington. He was a member of the Clinton-Gore transition team. He's a longtime lobbyist. Precisely the kind of person Baldacci writes about.

When the affair is over, the millionaire writer quietly wheels his empty hand truck through the corridors of power. Bob Schule strolls beside him.

Schule says the day went very well. He beams some more. That's how Washington works.

CAPTION: Former Washington trial lawyer David Baldacci greets fans of his latest bestseller, "Saving Faith," at a reception in the Capitol. Despite some poor reviews, his novels have brought in millions of dollars. "We've been really fortunate," says his wife, Michelle, pictured with him at left.