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DIFFUSE, FUN NOVEL DESERVES SOME SERIOUS ATTENTION

Some novelists turn to the essay, as Norman Mailer did in the 1960s, with good results. Some essayists turn to the novel, as Calvin Trillin did with "Runestruck," with not such good results.

Now essayist Roy Blount Jr. has turned to the novel. The results are very, very good.Blount's earlier essay collections include "About Three Bricks Shy of a Load" and last year's "Now Where Were We?" His first novel is "First Hubby," a tale told by the husband of America's first woman president.

Oh-oh, a comedy of manners set in our nation's capital. Is this going to be as boring as Christopher Buckley's "The White House Mess?"

Not to worry. "First Hubby" gets off to a fast start as its narrator, Guy Fox, a Southern writer who inherited at least some of Guy Fawkes' proclivities, records in his journal how he met the beauteous Clementine in the troubled '60s and how Clementine got to be president of the United States a quarter-century later.

That would be soon after Marilyn Quayle seduced George Bush and then ran off to Libya to seek asylum.

Fox jumps back and forth and sideways in his narrative and keeps the reader hopping as he skips from his first encounter with Clementine, jack naked at an anti-war demonstration he was covering for a South Carolina paper, on to their love affair, back to South Carolina, forward to Washington, D.C., where he breaks wind at the inauguration, back to his travels across the country.

The diffuse nature of the novel and his journalkeeper-narrator permit Blount to expatiate on various aspects of American culture in the essay form he has honed so finely over the years.

So expect all the good wordplay, the one-liners, the good-old-boy dialogue that is classic Blount.

But fiction liberates Blount in other ways, permits him to have fun with the unlikeliest people. Is Marilyn Quayle a good enough example?

Or how about the Fox family's dinner for Mikhail Gorbachev?

Mikhail is not there with Raisa. He's dining next to actress Susan Sarandon. See, Gorbachev got himself deposed between now and the Fox presidency. Raisa stayed on in Russia and Gorby embarked with gusto on a job in the publishing industry. Fox likes to go out among the people, disguised, and take the pulse of the nation in sleazy D.C. bars, and so he gets to know his makeup woman and asks her if "Nancy Reagan ever dressed up like a little match girl so she could wander among her subjects."

"Ooo," replies the makeup woman. "I didn't want any part of doing her. They say she bit somebody's arm once that was waxing her legs."

Of course this sort of fun could get old fast, so Blount picks other stuff from his bag of tricks as his narrator drives around the country, hitting towns like Caress, Okla., and Chihuahua, Ariz., where there's a store called Old Lon's Trading Post, in which is a cuspidor and a sign: "WILL OUTLAST 10 PLUGS OF STAR CHEWING TOBACCO - OLD LON WILL BET $25 YOU CANT HIT THIS DEAD CENTER AT 20 PACES (NO SWEDES PLEASE)."

But what really carries the novel along are not the jokes, the "historical" situations out there in Americanaland. Nor is the satire on politics its major strength.

"First Hubby" is just one heck of a love story. A satiric novel with likable protagonists who have feelings, not unlike Kurt Vonnegut's "Mother Night."

Guy Fox's descriptions of his beloved but enigmatic Clementine are touching without being sentimental, and although funny because of the context, they are genuine.

This heartsick poignancy grows as the novel progresses and the affairs of state estrange the couple, pushing Clementine further and further away from her increasingly flaky husband, who gets his first shot at best-sellerdom when a big publisher offers him a contract to publish a Wifey Dearest tell-all account of married life in the White House.