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Wednesday, June 26th, 2002


Big If

by Mark Costello

Secret Lives

A review by Adrienne Miller

Written with a reporter's exactitude and a novelist's fascination with character, Mark Costello's remarkable second novel follows the interior lives of the Secret Service agents assigned to protect the vice president, now a presidential candidate. The agents disengage more or less completely from their emotions when they're working -- they are roving eyes, watchfully watching. And that's pretty much the job. Obviously, it stands to reason that most of the agents have "fairly shitty home lives." They're in lonely marriages, or they can't get dates. Some of them are banging one another's spouses, which seems to comprise the worst of both previous options.

Each chapter in Big If is constructed as a character study (with lots and lots of background information) about one of the agents; most compelling is the tough, self-sufficient lady agent Vi. Vi's father, the recently dead Walter, was a champion atheist and a Republican (Republicans can be atheists? Who knew?) who went around defacing, in a most unRepublican manner, good hard honest American cash with the edit, "In US We Trust." Her brother, a computer geek named Jens, ought to be doing rather more with his talent than designing a game called Big If. He finds himself in the middle of an ethical crisis: "...there was something in this business of making monsters real or realistic which filled Jens with a deep sense of unease: as if they were poised to cross some kind of line."

The pacing here is superb, and the novel unfolds with kind of jittery anticipation, even if nothing much, well, happens. Big If is not a particularly plotted novel, but that's okay, because its pleasures are principally character-driven. A wonderfully detailed book that's altogether rich and enriching, human and humane.

Adrienne Miller is Esquire's literary editor.

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