Primary Suspects

updated 02/26/1996 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/26/1996 01:00AM

IT'S EVERY WRITER'S DREAM: a novel at the top of the heap and enough money to fill a Brink's truck. Primary Colors, the thinly veiled roman a clef based on Bill Clinton's rocky run for the White House in 1992, couldn't be hotter. The book, published last month with an advance of $200,000, is already in its 13th printing, Warner Books has paid $1.5 million for the paperback rights, director Mike (The Graduate) Nichols laid down another million to make the movie, and Doonesbury is running a spoof. So what can the author do for an encore? For starters: How about revealing his or her identity?

Political junkies and jealous journalists have tried for weeks to "out" the Washington insider who, as Anonymous, concocted this story of a southern governor and presidential wannabe who never met a rack of greasy ribs or set of shapely ankles that didn't make his belly growl. "You all find out everything in the wide world," the real Clinton told reporters two weeks ago. "The least you could do is tell all of us who wrote that book." (His guess: a former campaign press aide, Keith Boykin.) In fact so many Clintonites have been tagged as suspects that economic adviser Gene Sperling snorts, "It gets to be insulting if you're not mentioned."

This real-life whodunit was launched last April when Random House president Harold Evans met with agent Kathy Robbins, who represents such big-name writers as The New Yorker's David Remnick and The New York Times' Frank Rich. She passed him a manuscript in a plain brown envelope. "I said, 'Who's it by?' And she said, 'I can't tell you.' I should have saved the envelope for fingerprints and forensic tests." Evans swears the no-name byline is no publicity stunt. To protect Anonymous, the editing was done by typed correspondence. "It was like the Pony Express," says editor Daniel Menaker. "A comma that would ordinarily take three seconds over the phone would take three days." Their biggest tiff was over whether to jazz up a scene in which the Hillary figure throws herself at a character resembling George Stephanopoulos. ("I'd never, I realized," the narrator observes, "made love before to a woman who used hair spray.")

Though faced with the challenge of spending a passel of money without attracting attention, Anonymous is unlikely to give up the game any time soon. In an untraceable online interview with TIME, the author said, "I hope my identity is never revealed. I'm amazed by how important this has become to me."

ROB HOWE
SARAH SKOLNIK in Washington

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