In political language, the label "inside the beltway" is only slightly less sinister than "living out of a cave on the Pakistani border." It implies that someone has lived in D.C. too long, becoming irredeemably corrupt, totally out of touch, and severed from the pangs of conscience and the values and dreams of mainstream Americans. That perception is mostly bullshit, of course—as evidenced by the presidency of beltway "outsider" George W. Bush—but Ana Marie Cox's debut novel Dog Days makes it easy to believe it all over again. Better known as the founder of Wonkette, a popular D.C. blog known for its irreverent political gossip, Cox understands the inbred culture of politicians, journalists, lobbyists, and campaign activists so well that she makes the whole scene freshly repulsive. This counts as an accomplishment of sorts, albeit a dubious one: Rarely do good novels make readers want to flee their characters' company and look for the nearest open bar.
As it happens, the nearest open bar is usually a good place to find Melanie Thorton, a 28-year-old communications operative for 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Hillman, a Kerry-like wood-post nursing a vulnerable lead over the Republican incumbent in the polls. Surgically attached to her BlackBerry, which lights up and bleeps like a needy Tamagotchi, Melanie specializes in defusing rumors and scandals before they reach the press, but she soon gets caught up in her own spin zone. When a Washington Post gossip columnist catches wind of her tawdry affair with a married columnist and talk-show host, Melanie worries that the fallout could be severe, for the campaign as well as her career. As counter-spin, she and a lobbyist friend distract the cognoscenti by inventing Capitolette, a phony blog detailing a bimbo's sexual adventures with various unnamed Washington power players.
What follows is less a satire than a morality play that casts Melanie as an Iowa-bred babe in the woods who gets lost by trusting a philandering father-figure and doing the wrong thing in an attempt to set everything right. Though it mirrors the real '04 Presidential race—most prominently through a lame Manchurian Candidate twist on the Swift Boat crazies—the plotting doesn't make much sense: Melanie's indiscretions are hardly the stuff of scandal, and it's a stretch to see how creating Capitolette could plausibly cover them up. Those who think pillow talk over "campaign bounce" might have spiced up Sex And The City are welcome to it.