Judith Viorst finds novel wit outside corridors of power

December 27, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Washington -- Judith Viorst's first novel is about Washington. But it is not about:

* Handsome, silver-haired senators lusting for power and, not coincidentally, the ambitious, tawny-haired correspondent from CNN who's bent on uncovering the Story of the Century.

* The president of the United States and the leader of Russia playing a deadly game of chicken with nuclear warheads, as the whole world trembles.

She has lived in Washington for 34 years, and her husband, Milton, is a well-known political writer. But Ms. Viorst says with a slight shrug, "I don't know anything about the corridors of power. I know about the National Zoo."

So like any good writer -- in this case, one who has written several volumes of best-selling light verse and almost a dozen children's books -- Ms. Viorst began to write about what she knew. "Murdering Mr. Monti" (Simon and Schuster, $21), her acerbic and extremely funny comic novel, tells not of high-stakes power plays on Capitol Hill but of the relatively insulated subgroup of long-time, middle-class Washingtonians -- those involved, as she says, in the "daily, sweet life of living in the city."

They're the ones who stay when administrations change. They drive Volvo station wagons and send their kids to Georgetown Day School and go to the Kennedy Center in December for the annual concert of Handel's "Messiah." They may not be congressmen or work for one, but they get a kick out of living so close to the action.

"I wanted to write about all the people who have been here for years," Ms. Viorst, 62, says in an interview in her rambling, century-old home in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington. "These are the people who raise their kids together, go to each other's bar mitzvahs and weddings. It's not the glitziest aspect of Washington, but it's a lot more real than what you read in many novels about the city."

The heroine of "Murdering Mr. Monti" is Brenda Kovner, a successful and extraordinarily earnest advice columnist who tries to make up for a lack of sexual experience by sleeping with three men in one day. Brenda rationalizes: "I intended to commit adultery not in a spirit of self-indulgent lust but more in a spirit of intellectual inquiry." She also finds herself trying to murder her son's potential father-in-law, a blustering, raging bull of a guy who threatens to ruin her family.

It's all done with the arch, sardonic flavor familiar to readers of Ms. Viorst's light verse, collected in such books as "It's Hard to Be Hip and Over Thirty and Other Tragedies of Married Life."

"I really had a lot of fun with this one," Ms. Viorst says. "I mean, my professional persona has always been so respectable, so I loved it when I got to write about adultery and murder."

The adultery part in "Murdering Mr. Monti" has a serious theme amid Brenda's extramarital cavorting. "I put together an irritating, pesty woman in Brenda with her husband, a tight, disapproving man," says Ms. Viorst.

"Yet I wanted you to root for that marriage. That's why I put in a scene in which Brenda is thinking about the disappointments in her marriage, and then she thinks about all the small things Jeff did, like get in the shower and wash her hair when she was pregnant."

As for the murder aspect, she says brightly, "I loved trying to figure out how to murder someone. I remember one time talking to my internist and saying, 'Now you're sure that this poison would definitely kill him and nobody would notice?'

"My husband was walking by at the time, and I think he got a little nervous."

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