It was with some apprehension that I agreed to review Brad Meltzer's The Zero Game for Findlaw.com. The book jacket said that the "Zero Game is hiding a secret so explosive that it will shake Washington to its core," and that "when someone close to them winds up dead," the protagonists "realize this game is far more sinister than they ever imagined."
Frankly, any mention of circumstances that will shake Washington to its core, or games that cause someone to wind up dead, generally makes me roll my eyes. I have no problem believing that participants in the legislative process are attempting every legal means (and probably some non-legal means) to gain an advantage over their opponents. But I am pretty skeptical about the idea that they ever stoop to actual violence. It seems that most political goals, no matter how corrupt or ignoble, can be attained without ever having to resort to actual bloodshed.
Once I started The Zero Game, however, I was pleasantly surprised. It is not a perfect book, and most of its flaws do stem from its breathless recitation of a plot that is far-fetched, as I feared. But Meltzer is a good storyteller, which makes the book's other flaws easier to forgive.
What The Zero Game Is
The title of this novel refers to a game played by Capitol Hill staffers, in which they attempt to influence the business of the legislature, but only at the most extreme margins. In the game, a certain legislative outcome is the subject of the participants' bets.
For example, one bet concerns whether Congress will strengthen Major League Baseball's antitrust exemption. There is no question that the item will pass -- the bet concerns whether there will be 110 nay votes.
Because all of the participants in the game are involved in the legislative process, they can influence whether they win or not, which is what makes the game interesting. In theory, there is no danger to the substance of legislation, and the participants are only involved to add some interest to otherwise foregone conclusions. But, of course, things don't necessarily work in practice as they do in theory.
The Heroes of the Zero Game
Into this game walk the book's two main characters, Matthew and Harris. The two men knew each other in college, and both work as mid-level staff members on the Hill. Most importantly, Matthew works for a Congressman on the Appropriations Committee, meaning that he has a great deal of control over what small projects actually get funded, and at what level. And when one of the Zero Game's bets involve an Appropriations matter, Matthew and Harris realize that they have the power to decide the outcome of that bet, and that they should bet heavily.
Needless to say, this is where everything goes wrong. To say much more would reveal too much. Meltzer does a good job in throwing in some real surprises, and the story takes some turns that I never saw coming. There is at least one very surprising death, and Meltzer introduces some vivid characters, including a 17-year old Senate page from Michigan and a blind lobbyist who is a little too aggressive in his pursuit of his clients' interests.
An Engaging Read That Adeptly Explains the Legislative Process Along they Way
The Zero Game's story is fast-paced and engaging, and is a solid vacation read. It won't change how you think about life, but it will provide a pleasant diversion during a plane trip or other slow period.
Of special note is Meltzer's ability to describe the legislative process in a pleasant manner. The book actually left me with a better understanding of how the Hill works, and the important, and often positive, role that lobbyists play in determining legislative outcomes.
Indeed, the quality of Meltzer's description of Hill politics actually makes the rest of the rather implausible story line seem more realistic. For that reason, I'd say that The Zero Game is a cut above your average Washington-based thriller. (I enjoyed it much more than David Baldacci's Absolute Power, for example.)
I'd recommend that potential buyers wait until the paperback comes out. Still, if you find yourself in an airport bookstore wondering what to buy in advance of a lengthy flight, the odds are that The Zero Game is better than the vast majority of the other thrillers that will be available to you.