A Time to Run

By Barbara Boxer with Mary-Rose Hayes

Chronicle Books, 368 pages

When a short, feisty, liberal senator writes a novel about a short, feisty, liberal senator, it's only natural for people to wonder: How much of this is real? Especially when the fictional senator is battling the nomination of a conservative to the Supreme Court -- just like the senator who wrote the story.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) anticipates this question in a "Dear Reader" message at the start of her first novel. "My story is not about me," she writes. But it is about her world, she promises. "For years, I've wanted to let people know the inside stories of politics: the way it works, the nuances of power . . . the true world of politics in all its glory and all of its ugliness."

That's a big pledge from a rookie novelist. Politics is a tough subject, judging from literary history. Countless page-turners have been mined from such topics as murder, war, adventure, money, broken hearts. But a great political novel is as rare as the fabled white buffalo, and even a good one is a surprise. Politics is mostly meetings and speeches, punctuated by dinners and car rides.

Dull, dull, dull.

Boxer's book is no white buffalo, or even a surprise. As she and writing partner Mary-Rose Hayes discovered (but not before hacking out two entire chapters about a single monotonous day of campaigning), there's not much juice to be squeezed from the demographics of Fresno and the intricacies of a mythical Commission on Children, Youth and Families. And so, like legions of Washington novelists before them, they fall back in despair on the usual atmospherics: bed-hopping, back-stabbing, bad faith and bureaucratic corruption.

"A Time to Run" is basically three plots, loosely related, stuck together with champagne and fornication. The first plot, which opens and closes the book, finds Sen. Ellen Downey Fischer, a big-hearted liberal from the Bay Area, in possession of secret files that could derail the confirmation of right-wing judge Frida Hernandez.

But wait! The files are fake, knowingly passed to the senator by her former friend and one-time lover. To explain why he would do such a thing, Boxer launches into plot number two, which takes her characters back 30 years to their days as Berkeley undergraduates.

This plot follows the classic Harlequin romance template: one woman, two men -- a brooding brunet and a broad-chested blond. The two men, Joshua Fischer and Greg Hunt, are best friends and college roommates, and both love young Ellen Downey. But which one will she choose? The one doomed to an early death? Or the one with a Terrible Secret?

Architecturally, this triangle surely comes from the hand of co-author Hayes, whose earlier work, according to Publisher's Weekly, has involved bisexual Svengalis, mystical gemstones, globe-trotting fashion models and characters with such names as "Victoria Raven."

But the Terrible Secret is pure Boxer: Emotionally wounded, physically majestic, reliably priapic Greg cannot bear to tell Josh and Ellen that he's . . . a Republican.

Unfortunately, Boxer and Hayes are so flummoxed by this development that their story falls to pieces. Try as they might, they can't plausibly imagine how a nice boy like Greg could turn out so badly. The book becomes an increasingly outlandish series of temptations and debasements through which Greg passes on his way from college pal to GOP henchman. First they make Greg a budding journalist, which wipes away any lingering virtue. Then they assign him a rich, empty-headed wife, a Nazi-fancying father-in-law, and a billionaire mentor so rapacious that he keeps entire sides of beef in his house in case he wants a steak.

Changing a human being into a conservative takes so long that the book runs out of time, and ends in a flurry of half-tied loose ends. Josh dies, betrayed by Greg; Ellen fulfills her husband's destiny by winning the Senate seat occupied by Greg's rich mentor; Greg tries to tempt Ellen with the forged documents that could boomerang to ruin her career.

It's a shame, this hectic finish, because the third plot never has room to develop -- and it's the one that might actually have been interesting. Namely, the personal journey of a woman from unpaid activist to U.S. senator.

Ellen Fischer may not be Barbara Boxer -- Boxer graduated from Brooklyn College a dozen years before Ellen, Josh and Greg left Berkeley. But the fictional senator and her creator have shared an experience new to this period in history: the mainstreaming of women into American politics. How that worked, what it felt like, how it changed the institutions and the men and women involved, could have been fodder for a swell book, if told honestly and briskly, with wit and feeling.

As for capturing "the true world of politics in all its glory and all of its ugliness," that has already been done, by Robert Penn Warren in "All the King's Men."

Von Drehle is a staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine.

Sen. Barbara Boxer's debut novel may not be about her, but it is about the California Democrat's world of politics.