(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Raised in a New Hampshire hamlet nestled between Interstate 95 and the Atlantic Ocean, Vi Asplund and her brother Jens grew up quite routinely. Their father, a Republican, atheist, insurance adjuster, crosses out “God” on United States currency and inks “U.S.” into the slogan “In God We Trust.” Vi learns investigative techniques early as she accompanies her father to the disaster sites covered by his insurance company’s policies: a farming accident resulting in a lost foot, a lightning strike that kills a golf professional, a fire that burns down a building and appears to be arson.

Walter Asplund could sniff out fraud better than anyone else in his field. At his funeral, he was eulogized as someone who could read scorch marks better than any other insurance adjuster. When Walter died, Vi, then about twenty-five, fled Center Effing and joined the Secret Service, first working in the Crime Division tracking down counterfeiters but then, at her own request, moving to the group assigned to protect high government officials and their families.

Jens, bright and obsessed by computers, graduated from Harvard and went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which he quit a dissertation short of a Ph.D. He returns to Center Effing to help start BigIf, a computer corporation he hopes will go public so that he can sell his interest in the company and set himself up for life. He is working specifically on constructing a complicated war game whose success and acceptance he considers his passport to financial security.

Big If, a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction, focuses chiefly on the group that, during the months preceding the presidential election, works together to protect the vice president, now a presidential candidate. The vice president is a phantom figure, glimpsed fleetingly in passing. The book clearly is not about him. In the spotlight is the group of five Secret Service agents assigned to see that nothing catastrophic befalls him during his campaign.

The alienation that demanding jobs cause in human relationships is a controlling theme in this novel, Mark Costello’s second major venture into fiction. The Secret Service agents guarding the vice president have families of their own and family responsibilities. Even Vi, who is young and unmarried, has her brother Jens and Peta, his wife, as well as their three-year-old Kai, all of whom are relatively close to Vi. The lead agent, Gretchen Williams, a forty-eight-year-old single mother, has a ten-year-old son, Tevon, whose grandmother looks after him in Beltsville, Maryland.

Tevon has grown increasingly resentful of his mother’s constant absences and has begun to act out in ways that signal his distress. He has discovered, via the Internet, that his father, Carlton Imbry, lives in Los Angeles and has taken the initiative in making contact with Imbry. He uses the threat of going to California to be with his father as a feeble club to keep Gretchen in line.

Gretchen’s job—which, incidentally, she neither sought nor wanted—tears her in many directions. She was virtually commanded to take the job, which would keep her away from home a great deal, by being told that if she did not take it, she would be reassigned to Los Angeles. This prospect terrified her, presumably because she did not want Tevon to know the identity of his father or to associate with him. Gretchen loves Tevon, but when the telephone rings and she is told she is to fly out of Andrews Air Force Base in two hours, she must go.

Lloyd Felker, clearly the group’s intellectual, owns a farm in northern Virginia, where he lives with his beautiful wife, a former television actress, and their son, Jasper Jason. Lloyd carries such a wealth of classified information in his head that losing him would constitute a great security risk. For a time, however, it appears that Felker has indeed been lost.

During a campaign trip, the vice president hears about a raging flood in Hinman, Illinois, and decides that his flight to Washington should be diverted to someplace near Hinman to provide him with a valuable photo opportunity. The situation in Hinman is grave. Convicts have been brought to town to help the residents build a levee against the swirling waters. Felker tries to rescue people from a mobile home but is swept away by the current. He is presumed dead until charges to his credit cards begin to turn up in various parts of the Southwest. Has he...

(The entire section is 1818 words.)