News & Politics

Big If

“By turns vulgar, funny, and insightful.”

 What’s the Big If in your life—the thing that could tip its balance from sanity to lunacy? What about the nation: Isn’t there some disturbing rumble we try not to hear as we shop or tuck the kids in, refusing to acknowledge monsters under the bed?

 Costello’s novel probes the American psyche through the perspective of Secret Service agents assigned to a vice president on the campaign trail. One agent is Tashmo, the Reagan-emulating veteran who hits on every appealing woman in striking distance, more out of reflex than desire. There’s Lloyd, the legendary mind who pokes holes in every protection plan but may be too tightly wound for his own good. And Vi, still mourning her atheist Republican father, who’s never really moved into her Crystal City–ish studio—or her adult emotional landscape. Woven in is Vi’s brother, Jens, a ’70s computer prodigy now writing “beautiful code” for an online war game. His wife and Vi’s pal, Peta—an ambitious “realtrix”—plays shrink/sorority sister/soothsayer to the CEOs’ wives she ferries around to find their fantasy homes.

 Costello likes intricate details: “Vi’s feet and legs were pushing, her pelvis to the VP’s flabby trousered thigh. If she saw the muzzle of a pistol coming up, a muzzle in the blur, she was trained to shout Gun gun and pivot on her outside leg and curl across the VP’s chest, pushing him backwards as she did. Tashmo, hearing Gun gun, would be curling too, and they would shove the VP stumbling to the fast extraction team. . . .”

 Original in style and concept, Big If doesn’t have a plot so much as a progression in which story lines come together and a few loose ends tie up. But the accumulated dread leads to a minor-key ending rather than a major payoff. By turns vulgar, funny, and insightful, the book will annoy some and intrigue others with its endless flashbacks and tangential delvings into what makes its characters tick. Love it or hate it, Costello’s a writer to watch.

Mark Costello

W.W. Norton