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The Floating Island: A Tale of Washington : by Garrett Epps (Houghton Mifflin: $14.95; 286 pp.)

July 21, 1985|Kay Mills | Mills is a Times Opinion writer.

Washington reporters awaken early and sneak off to quiet basements in Alexandria and Chevy Chase. They retreat to A-frames in the West Virginia mountains or cottages on the Eastern Shore of Maryland on weekends. They steal from their sleep and from their vacation days in search of the beguiling muse that will deliver to them the Washington Novel.

Their protagonists are Presidents having affairs, diplomats about to defect with state secrets, journalists (always journalists) seeking truth and senators seeking fame. Like pundits covering this election with last election's mind-set, these Washington novelists may have been focusing on the wrong characters. Garrett Epps, himself a former staff writer on the Washington Post Magazine, turns to the bureaucrats, the town's hangers-on, its cults and crazies, the permanent inhabitants of 'The Floating Island.' He may be on to something.

A straightforward plot synopsis reads like a minor-agency government briefing stumbled into by mistake. In part, it's about a guy trying to get a government grant to keep a lumber mill open. But he's a Gulliver tied down by Lilliputians.

Epps has them all. There are the followers of the Temple of Ray located on a dingy, weedy lot off Columbia Road. There's the department secretary, "a retired general whose career had followed the postwar pattern of upward failure," and his deputy, the type "who must be given a job of some kind because of political credentials, but who lacks qualifications for any job at all." There's the career man who knows where all the memos are buried and how to cut every job but his own, and the writer who lives on carry-out curry as he cranks out obscure journal articles on the Romanian debt. There's the Power Lunch, the set-up scam, the siege of the week. Through it all walk two relatively sane characters, Luck and Nash, and there may be more than a little coincidence in their names.

It is not only unfair to tell any more of the plot, it's impossible. You have to be there. Epps is clunky now and then. He hasn't got the cab drivers quite right. Not only don't they speak the language, they also won't go to Anacostia, which is a black section of town; they perfume their cars with gaggingly scented deodorizer and then keep the windows up; they careen around the streets when you've got all day and stop for every yellow light when you don't. It's also hard to judge how the book will be read by those who haven't had to listen to one too many functionaries drone on about "eligibility guidelines and administrative requirements for block grant, planning grant and matching grant programs."

But Epps has clearly had his epiphanies. He starts off with one: "Washington is a market. What is traded is reputation. This market clears daily; it has its booms, its panics, its frauds, its insider trading, its mighty rallies and its overnight collapses; sometimes trading is slow, sometimes furious. All the energy that might be spent in governing the country is absorbed in the frenzy of the pit."

My Washington Novel will also begin with an epiphany. It tells about the end of the world, set in the parking lot at Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts outside the capital. It came to me in the parking lot at Wolf Trap Farm Park, a lot that has too few exits and too many cars trying to use them. Like members of Congress, no driver will move for fear that someone will get ahead of him. So all perish. Garrett Epps would see the absurdity, which is the only way to see any true tale of Washington.

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