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A political novel straight from the Hart

The Strategies of Zeus, by Gary Hart. New York: William Morrow & Co., 360 pp. $18.95. In the 1984 Democratic primary, Walter Mondale disposed of then-Sen. Gary Hart's presidential aspirations with three little words: ``Where's the beef?'' Mr. Mondale went on to lose the election. Mr. Hart went back to the Senate and began generating beef - position papers on everything from foreign policy to education.

It's not surprising, then, that a book published Jan. 28 - five days before Hart opened his 1988 presidential campaign headquarters in Denver - would be a position paper. Nor is it surprising that its subject would be arms control, d'etente, and United States-Soviet relations.

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What's surprising is that it's a novel.

That's a significant fact. In an age when the imagined and the real are increasingly blurred in docudramas, historical novels, magazine profiles, and science fiction, it seems almost inevitable that fiction, rather than analytic discourse, should arise as a medium for serious discussion of the issues facing the nation. Television, after all, has proved that we all want to be entertained. So why shouldn't an author oblige us with a rip-roaring, fun-to-read story of espionage, intrigue, and romance - injecting along the way his own ideas on international affairs?

Hart has obliged, and the resulting book (his fifth, and his second novel) can be read on at least four levels. First, it's simply a tale. Handsome, thoughtful Frank Connaughton, a member of the US delegation at Geneva, is trying to negotiate an end to the arms race before the hawks on both sides launch World War III. So is lovely, reserved Ekaterina Davydov, a translator for the Soviet delegation. The action, while centering in Geneva, takes us from Connaughton's Montana ranch to the innermost offices of the Kremlin. The characters are articulate, uncomplicated, and (according to the needs of the story) either very nice or very awful people. The tone, suitably upbeat, is also suitable for a television special - a point that Hart, still burdened by a million-dollar-plus debt from his 1984 campaign, might be the first to admit.

But the book is also, second, a novel - part of a centuries-old tradition encompassing both fine artists and pot-boiling gossipmongers. Hart is neither - although if he rises above the crudeness of the latter, he falls very far short of the excellence of the former. What he lacks is an understanding of something that competent novelists call ``point of view.'' Hart wanders innocently about from head to head - yet fails to tell us, in crucial instances, the most basic things that the characters would know about themselves.

Case in point: Ms. Davydov, inside whose thinking we have spent a great deal of time, turns out to be something more than we thought. What crumbles here is credibility - our crucial willingness to believe that these events really could happen and that the world really could be saved in this way.

For saved it surely is - which, third, opens the question of what the novel is trying to say. Hart's point is that an arms agreement at Geneva would be an unquestioned blessing, and that hawkish wickedness in high places would like to undermine it. This novel is a recipe for that agreement. It depends, as such recipes do, on the cast of characters on both sides, from the well-meaning Soviet general secretary Kamenev to America's bumbling and superficial president Lawkard. Only if they can be believed, however, can this recipe be trusted: Authenticity is key. As though to plead for authenticity, Hart intrudes some real-life names: the American ambassador in Moscow is ``Hartman'' (as in Arthur Hartman, who recently announced his retirement from that post), while the Soviet ambassador in Washington is Anatoly Dubinin (a curious blend of former Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and current Soviet Ambassador Yuri Dubinin).

The need for authenticity, too, underlies the choice of dates: The action runs from late 1987 through early 1988, guaranteeing the book an exceedingly short shelf-life.

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But that, fourth, may be the point. This is not simply a book by a tale-teller, or a professional novelist, or a former member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. This book is by a man who, say the polls, is now the leading Democratic candidate for 1988.

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