Though subtitled ""A Comedy of Manners"" (probably so as to remind readers that the author is also syndicated-columnist ""Miss Manners""), this sporadically amusing first novel is really more a creaky morality play with gags--as Martin offers two mismatched episodes, 25 years apart, in the life of unappealing hero Gilbert Fairchild. In 1958, handsome Gilbert is an insufferably smug Harvard undergraduate who prides himself on cranking out all-purpose essays and manipulating girlfriends via emotional sadism--though he has the occasional doubt. (""Having his own home, inspiring love, eluding others' demands--what did they add up to? A dusty room, a clingy girl, an empty calendar."") But when Gilbert spends the summer in Georgetown, sleeping in with Washington-connected girlfriend Erna, he finds himself out of his league: the D.C. party scene is on a whole other level of ambitious slickness; Erna's gorgeous housemate Liane rejects Gilbert's adoring advances, preferring a sneaky, desperate affair with State Department veteran George Beaufort. And so, back at Harvard, young Gilbert switches his interest from literature to politics, talks his way onto the campaign staff of a gubernatorial candidate, and loses girlfriend #2 Margery to wimpy friend Buddy. Jump, then, to the 1970s. Gilbert is now Special Assistant to the President. He's married to social-climbing Wanda. But, having made it, hustler Gilbert is at last ""bored with hustling."" And, inspired by old-girlfriend Margery (now a crusader for the rights of the handicapped), Gilbert will eventually buck the White House establishment, risking All in order to push the unpopular handicapped issue; furthermore, he will yearn to know ""how much I feel is real""; and he will back off from adultery with old beloved Liane, now married to George, but happily promiscuous. In short, having ""tried evil,"" Gilbert will now try virtue. Unfortunately, however, thanks to the superficial characterization and the spotty time-frame, this is one of the weaker variations on the Washington disillusionment/transformation formula--unconvincing and preachy, despite the bantering tone. And Martin surrounds the thin Gilbert portrait with an uneven glaze of subplots and satires: the Harvard material is in-jokey (the funniest line depends on a knowledge of Cambridge neighborhoods); the savvy Washington party-scenes are moderately wicked; and the White House bureaucracy is only half-persuasively lampooned. Occasional laughs, then--but, seemingly unsure whether to write a devilish sex comedy, a Washington satire, or a semi-serious character study, Martin has pieced together a multi-toned fiction debut that never really scores in any one category.