Protection, American-Style: Life in Secret Service Land

Big If , by Mark Costello. Norton, 315 pages, $24.95.

Those Secret Service types with the suits and the shades and the wires in their ears-any novel that can put you inside their heads deserves an appreciative audience. Big If successfully maps the thoughts of a trio of agents charged with the protection of a Vice President campaigning in a Presidential primary-and that’s just to begin with. Mark Costello also has a knack for surfaces; he gets the feel of places and things; he stirs you into the thick of an American moment.

There’s still more: Mr. Costello is aiming higher than simple entertainment. Never pretentious and only occasionally “literary,” Big If situates itself somewhere on the same shelf with the novels of Don DeLillo and Richard Ford. Although it’s only Mr. Costello’s second novel-and not up there with Underworld or Independence Day – Big If suggests that Mr. Costello has the talent and the ambition to one day write a big, powerful book (there’s no hurry).

One of the agents, Vi Asplund, is a young woman in mourning for her father; Gretchen Williams, the V.P.’s chief-of-detail, is a 45-year-old black single mother who knows that “above GS-10 or so, the Service, like a mountain, grew white as snow and also very cold”; and Tashmo is an incorrigible philanderer who was on the Reagan detail when John Hinckley Jr. fired off his tribute to Jodie Foster.

Agents in a crowd, or along the ropes separating crowd and candidate, go deep into what they call “vacant mode” (“total watchfulness, scan the hands, scan the hands, always the hair trigger”); Vi guesses that they all have “such shitty home lives” not just because they’re constantly traveling but also because they’re forced to “toggle back and forth from vacant mode … to normal people mode, whatever that might be.” Vi herself has to struggle to stay vacant: “[T]he faces on the rope were bar code, miles of it, and she scanned.”

One threat to the V.P. turns out to be a programmer who worked with Vi’s brother, Jens, writing code for a war game called BigIf. (Jens is a fan of another computer game, Red Motorcade, “which let you relive the murder of John Kennedy in the role of Oswald, the Cubans, the CIA, the Soviets, the Cosa Nostra, or the Secret Servicemen playing in thwart mode.”) Through Jens, Mr. Costello introduces the notion of a world reduced to a computer’s binary logic: “Life, wisdom, speed, strength, agility, time, fate, beauty, death-everything was numbers crunched through algorithms endlessly.”

It’s Jens’ wife, Peta, a high-end real-estate agent, who’s our window on the “normal world,” away from both computers and the business of safeguarding politicians. Peta’s job is to house the lucky few who’ve profited to the max from the New Economy; she puts a roof over an upgraded version of the American dream. Her clients require self-mulching gardens, helipads, walk-in humidors.

Mr. Costello gives the impression that he’s casting a fresh eye on the world-a fresh and playful eye. We visit a retirement community called Grassy Knoll. We sympathize with Gretchen, who’s worrying about her weight: “She was coming off a solid year of food-verb events on the campaign trail, corn-boils, fish-frys, weiner-roasts, bean-bakes, salad-tosses.” (Despite her worries, we catch her eating a pretzel, “the big kind with the mustard and the road salt.”) Tashmo, who used to patrol the woods at Camp David, reflects that Lyme disease “was basically old age except you caught it from a deer.” Here’s Peta driving along an interstate, puzzling out a theory of rubber-necking: “Highways were the place of straight ahead, lanes and lines … a place of architected flow, rails and information. Any break in flow, any accident, was doubly engrossing because the eyes were starved for something jarring.”

Big If is a good book with a flaw: It doesn’t get far enough beneath its brilliantly rendered surfaces . Yes, Mr. Costello has done an impressive amount of homework: He knows the Secret Service and he knows programming. More important, he knows his characters-they feel real. But he’s restless, too quick to hop from one head to another. We don’t understand Vi’s protracted mourning and her anomie any better at the end of the novel than we did at the beginning. A reader needs to live with characters a while before their inner lives blossom, the way they do, for example, in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (Mr. Franzen, who’s been generous with his name in the wake of his own success, bestowed a handsome blurb here, as did David Foster Wallace).

No single storyline ties Big If together. The fact that many of the characters go out every day and risk their lives (“If she saw the muzzle of a pistol coming up, she was trained to shout Gun gun and pivot on her outside leg and curl across the VP’s chest”) absolves Mr. Costello of the need to plot: Suspense is built into the package. If he’d been obliged to spin a yarn, to supply motive and other psychological baggage, he might have pushed himself into more resonant depths.

He does, though, have a coherent theme: our need for protection-and our hunger for risk-in a dangerous world, a world in which, sooner or later, the relentless, amoral logic of algorithm will escalate accident into disaster. It’s a matter of mathematical inevitability. In the end, this is the brilliance of Mark Costello’s Big If , the sly way he gets you to think about what it is the Secret Service is actually protecting-the American Way-as the candidate works a New Hampshire crowd: Howyadoin, howyadoin, goodtaseeya, howyadoin .

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.