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The Dinner Party by Howard Fast (Houghton Mifflin: $17.95; 250 pp.)

February 22, 1987|David Savage | Savage is a staff writer in The Times' Washington bureau

A Washington dinner party could make for a good novel. Politicians are calculators, and the best of them know how the figures will come out before all the numbers are punched in. An ostensibly social occasion--a dinner or a reception--is among the best places to watch a politician at work. He seeks information, asks what others think about an issue, tries out an argument on one side--analyzing, calculating. Put another politician there too, and you might want to listen in.

But not at a dinner party created by Howard Fast. Rather than ideas, issues, names and witticisms, you get a couple of college kids sounding off about Buddhism and meditation--reverberations of the worst of the 1960s. "I mean, to me," the senator's son tells the secretary of state, "taking a human life is an act of murder." His daughter, equally given to profundity, tells the secretary about "mushroomlike clouds" that will "blow us all away."

Her father, Sen. Richard Cromwell, is silent at dinner, and silent through most of the novel. He is shown to be vaguely liberal. He is angry about the arrest of the Tucson activists who gave sanctuary to Salvadorans. And he's against nuclear war.

But other than that, we get "Dallas" or "Dynasty" in the Washington suburbs. We see him jogging in the morning, cruising in his Mercedes sports coupe, swimming in his pool, setting up a rendezvous with his female assistant, discussing wines with his butler. He is surrounded by a cardboard cast that includes a son at Harvard Law, tall and handsome but with AIDS, and a wife with family wealth but aging and unhappy. And guess what? She is seeing an analyst.

"She realized that there was a true mythic connection in what was happening this evening," Fast tells us about the impending dinner party. "Two of the most powerful people in all of mankind's history on Earth were coming to her pleasant old country house. They represented a power that dwarfed the Alexanders and Caesars and Napoleons and Hitlers. They could press a button and extinguish not only mankind, but all that lives on Earth."

Guess who's coming to dinner? Not Reagan and Gorbachev. It's the secretary of state and an assistant secretary. An assistant secretary with his finger on the button?

My suggestion is, don't wade through another 100 pages waiting for this dinner party to begin. Skip the book, call a few friends who are good conversationalists, and meet them for dinner.

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