A Hill Thriller

Capitol Is Backdrop for ‘Zero Game’

Posted January 16, 2004 at 2:46pm

Brad Meltzer’s latest novel, “The Zero Game,” is a high-speed thriller that sends two jaded Congressional staffers on a harrowing chase around, through and underneath the world of Capitol Hill. It’s a fiction adventure that is not only notable for the fantastic story it weaves but also for its ability to realistically depict the intricate details of life inside the walls of the Capitol.

“The Zero Game,” which goes on sale today, is Meltzer’s fourth book. And while Washington, D.C., has been the backdrop for his previous stories about the White House and the Supreme Court, this is Meltzer’s first venture into the legislative branch of government.

“I think all the people outside of the Hill will be surprised by some of the things that happen in this book, but I think people inside the Hill will immediately recognize their own lives and may not be too surprised by some of the things that go on,” said Meltzer.

“The Zero Game” centers on Harris Sandler, a Senate chief of staff, and Matthew Mercer, a staffer on the House Appropriations Committee, both of whom have become cynical in their jobs after years of working on the Hill.

“Last week I celebrated eight years here,” muses Matthew in the opening pages of the story, “and what do I have to show for it? A shared office and a Congressman who, last week, pressed himself up against the Vice President to make sure he didn’t get cropped out of the photo for the next day’s newspaper.”

The two friends find relief from the mundane vote counts and repetitive work days by playing a mysterious game that has them betting money on vote counts for legislation and which pork projects will make it into certain bills. The zero game, as their mysterious betting circle is called, provides some much-needed excitement in their lives, until it turns deadly. As the chase begins, a 17-year-old Senate page is the only person who can help the friends find the truth and escape the game. Readers will enjoy the ride and can look forward to one huge plot twist in the first 100 pages.

In researching “The Zero Game,” his first novel since Sept. 11, 2001, Meltzer said his biggest challenge was getting access to the Capitol. He found his way in by tagging along to work with his wife, a former lawyer for the House Judiciary Committee.

Meltzer, himself a former intern for the Senate Judiciary Committee when he was a teenager, spent months inside the Capitol finding secrets to tell and places to set his scenes. With his wife’s access and his engaging personality, Meltzer found himself crawling around maintenance tunnels beneath the Capitol, walking on the roof of the building and interviewing dozens of Congressional staffers to find out the details of what it’s like to work in the seat of American democracy. The result is a very realistic representation.

“I was told that if anyone asked, I was to say I was an intern,” Meltzer said. And at 33 years old, “I think I would have been the oldest intern in the history of the Capitol,” he joked.

Meltzer, who was a speechwriter for AmeriCorps before he became an author, saw Senate hideaways located beneath the Capitol, learned how Congressmen use code words to find out if they are talking to big donors and found out stories such as how a certain Senator, while he was on the chamber floor, once wiped the sweat from his forehead with a pair of women’s underwear — all of which show up in his story.

And while Meltzer admits the game he describes in his book is fictitious, he says the idea of betting on what happens in the Capitol is not completely foreign. He related how during one interview he learned of a group of staffers whose Congressman spoke so often on the House floor that his office began betting on the frequency of his speeches. They passed around a jar, adding money every day, and on the day the Congressman happened to not give a speech, the staffer whose desk the jar landed on won the money.

“So in some ways the zero game actually lives in Congress,” Meltzer said.

Throughout the murders and the chases across Washington in “The Zero Game,” Meltzer spends a lot of time in his story describing the power structures that exist on Capitol Hill.

Melter writes in one scene, “As the group shoves its way inside, I’m once again reminded that the Capitol is the only building in the world with no back, both the west front (overlooking the Mall) and the east front (overlooking the Supreme Court) claim to be the true front. Mostly, it’s because, with so many self-important people in one place, they all want to think their wonderful view is the best. Even the north and south side get into the act, calling themselves the Senate entrance and House entrance. Four sides of a building and not one of them is the back. Only in Congress.”

And whether it’s the Senate side looking down on the House side, Members thinking themselves above their staffs or aides holding pages in contempt, it’s a theme Meltzer explores through the end of the story.

“What I’m trying to portray,” Meltzer said, “is that anyone who has been on the Hill a long time is not going to be the person they were when they started. There is no way anyone is still as idealistic as the first day they walked in the door with their brand-new pens.”

But beyond the power trips and egos, Meltzer also finds characters who truly understand the importance of what it means to live and work in Congress.

“This book, some people can judge, is what I don’t like about the institution, but it’s also what I love about the institution,” he said. “Despite all the bickering and all the infighting, at the end of the day people are still there and are trying to do the very best that they can.

“I love Congress,” he added. “I love that it’s the worst of us and the best of us and that’s what makes it interesting.”

Meltzer’s 28-city book tour begins this week in Washington. Those interested in reading the first chapter of the book can read it online at www.bradmeltzer.com.