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The Zero Game


The Zero Game

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You cannot come away from reading a Brad Meltzer book without being
just a little smarter. THE FIRST COUNSEL provided an extremely
interesting peek behind the curtains of the White House. THE
MILLIONAIRES contained several side dissertations about finance
that were not only informative but also interesting. In his latest
offering, THE ZERO GAME, Meltzer provides an illuminating, and at
times, quietly frightening look at the way the United States
government does --- and does not --- work.

At age 19 Meltzer was an intern on Capitol Hill. Along the way he
apparently acquired a bit of knowledge about appropriations
committees. You've heard the term "appropriations committee." It's
a term of art that usually causes one's eyes to glaze over. He
apparently did a lot more than work on Capitol Hill, however; he
observed and absorbed a lot as well, if THE ZERO GAME is any

The initial focus of the novel is the appropriations committees of
the House and Senate. Matthew Mercer and Harris Sandler are good
friends who are on appropriations committees in the House and
Senate, respectively. One day Sandler lets Mercer in on something
called the Zero Game, which is kind of a clandestine government
office betting pool. But it isn't a wager on football games ---
it's a bet on such things as how many votes will be cast for or
against House resolutions, or whether items will be included or
excluded from bills or resolutions. The fact that the participants
in the game don't know the identity of the other players, other
than the pool member who invites them to participate, adds to the

Meltzer initially takes a bit longer to set up THE ZERO GAME than
he ordinarily does in his novels, and for just a page or two his
regular readers might wonder if he's going to tone things down a
bit for this offering. Never fear. The quiet beginning is a setup.
After the first 50 pages or so Meltzer takes a completely
unexpected left turn that will have you rereading a paragraph or
two several times until you're sure that he actually did what you
think he did. I still can't believe it, but he did do it.

From there, Meltzer doesn't even give his reader a chance to come
up for air. What appears to be a harmless, even beneficial, line
item in an appropriations bill --- authorizing the private
acquisition of an abandoned, and apparently worthless, gold mine in
South Dakota --- becomes a wager subject of the Zero Game and leads
to a desperate cross-country race to determine why someone is
willing to stop at nothing --- including murder --- to ensure that
the transfer of the land goes through.

Meltzer is in fine form here, as his protagonists are pursued back
and forth across the country with an ultimate, and perhaps
symbolic, showdown in the bowels of the Capitol Building. The
elements that make Meltzer's work so addictive are all present
here. Meltzer has few equals in his ability to ratchet the suspense
level of his narratives to new highs, all the while dropping
interesting little factoids about the nooks and crannies of his
well-known surroundings. I learned more about the Capitol Building
in a few pages of THE ZERO GAME than I learned from a solid year of
high school civics. Yet Meltzer never lets the information drag his
storyline down. There are times when reading this book is like
being taken on a tour of the Capitol Building by a tour guide who
has a pistol stuck in your ear while you race through the corridors
of government. You know where you are and you're conscious of what
he's saying, but you're praying that everything turns out

Meltzer also demonstrates some familiarity with caverns. I don't
know if he is a spelunker in his spare time, but his descriptions
of mine shafts and caverns are dead on. Maybe a little too dead-on,
actually. If you're at all claustrophobic, you might want to read
the last half of the book outside so you can take a breath once in
a while.

With THE ZERO GAME Meltzer continues to demonstrate his ability to
present a complex plot in an understandable manner while using it
as a method to propel his characters, and the reader, through a
reading experience that is unstoppable. Although this is only
Meltzer's fifth novel, he writes like a Grandmaster of many years'
experience. If you haven't reserved a bookshelf in your library for
him yet, you will soon.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011

The Zero Game
by Brad Meltzer

  • Publication Date: November 30, -0001
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Warner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0446530980
  • ISBN-13: 9780446530989