Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1818
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 defected in order to use his encyclopedic knowledge of the Secret Service as barter?
Apparently Felker was floating away on a roof when one of the convicts scrambled to the same roof to save himself. The two were catapulted down river and finally washed ashore. The convict, presuming Felker was dead, robbed him, then headed west using Felker’s credit cards. Felker, however, was quite alive and, after he regained consciousness, disappeared in the confusion following the flood. He finally reappears, but the Secret Service does not publicize his survival. Rather, he is quietly reassigned to the Technical Assistance Unit of the Data Administration Group of the Personnel Division, Boston station, where he bears the title of Leave Specialist. He and his family move to Massachusetts, where Felker yields to the sexual temptations of Ranger Nguyen and is finally shot and killed by Nguyen’s jealous lover.
Before Felker is done in, however, his wife confesses to him that his colleague, Tashmo, whose sexual prowess is legendary, was years earlier involved in an affair with her and that the son that Felker presumed was his own is actually Tashmo’s, conceived in Santa Barbara during Ronald Reagan’s administration. Felker takes this revelation stoically, but apparently the thought of it consumes him.
Here again the alienation theme is undeniable. The pressures of the job presumably lead to dalliances such as Tashmo’s. Tashmo, whose sexual indiscretions are numerous, thinks that he wants to reform. He would like to confess to his wife, Shirley, but as Costello recounts, “He had tried many times in the last few years to say or imply or insinuate that [Shirley] didn’t need to worry when he was away, that he was finally faithful, finally settled, finally hers, but she wouldn’t let it go, this image of her husband as a stud. No woman wants a man no woman wants. She couldn’t see him as a relic of past futures, because what would that make her? Jealousy is vanity eventually, he thought.”
The alienation theme exists not only among the Secret Service people in the novel; they, after all, must be so fully committed to protecting the people they are guarding that when trouble erupts, as it does at the end of this novel, they must unquestioningly cry “Gun, gun” and throw themselves on top of the person they are protecting to take any bullets that are fired, risking death, the ultimate alienation. Granted, the agents wear protective kevlar vests, but agents are nonetheless in the line of fire and sometimes are shot when assaults are made on public figures.
Costello could have explored the alienation theme by focusing on occupations other than the Protection Detail of the Secret Service, but people on this detail are committed to their work in ways that few people in other professions are. Not many occupations or professions require the absolute loyalty demanded of those on the Protection Detail.
Jens, Vi’s brother, suffers alienation from his father less than two weeks before Walter’s death when he tells Walter about the work he does, the programming of war games. Walter considers this work immoral or, at least, amoral. He disapproves of it so strenuously that Jens goes for a week without having any contact with Walter. They have been reunited for less than a week when Jens is called upon to plan Walter’s funeral.
Big If is a well-written novel. The author’s close observation and recording of physical detail makes his writing exceptionally visual. In describing the headquarters of the Secret Service, for example, he writes, “The quad was a grass oval, big enough for soccer, browned over for the winter. The buildings on the quad—Threats, Plans, Movements, Psych Services, the Weapon School, and Technical Support—were of a set, if not a mind-set, red brick and cream steel, sculptural, abstract, like if you pushed them all together, they would fit and make a giant checkered cube.” This passage is typical of much of the physical description Costello employs in the novel—specific, spare, direct.
One might question whether the author loses valuable focus by devoting nearly fifty pages from chapters 9 through 11 to Jens Asplund, his wife Peta, and their child Kai. Certainly the alienation theme is preserved in these pages: Peta dislikes her job of selling mansions to the nouveau riche, working ungodly hours, sacrificing her evenings and weekends to her work, but she is a successful sales person. Much of the information contained in this portion of the book, notably Vi’s relationship with her brother, sister-in-law, and nephew, could have been condensed to less than five pages without doing significant damage to the ongoing story. Actually, in these pages are the seeds of another novel, but their inclusion here detracts from the emphasis on the five Secret Service agents who are at the heart of Big If.
Costello succeeds in bringing together the two strands of his novel by detailing a critical security problem within the final pages of the text. Vaughn Naubek has been fired from the BigIf Company the day before the vice president’s visit to New Hampshire. He is seen and recognized in the crowd milling about to hear the vice president’s speech. Oddly, he is dressed in the garb of a Postal Service employee.
Vaughn drops the helmet he has been carrying. Then Vi notices that Vaughn’s hand goes into his coat and brings from it a revolver. The anguished cry of “Gun, gun” crackles through the intercom as Agent Bobbie Niles throws herself onto the vice president’s chest. The sharp shooters stationed around Market Square fire two rounds. One hits Vaughn in the head, the other in the chest. The latter rips apart a suicide note Vaughn had written and was carrying in his inside pocket.
Vi, knocked down, is splattered with blood and bone fragments. The vice president is also splattered with blood. It is soon determined, however, that neither he nor Vi have sustained injuries. Vaughn’s revolver is retrieved. Its magazine is empty, a fact that the Secret Service suppresses. It is clear that Vaughn has engineered a situation that would lead inevitably to his death, which was, therefore, technically a suicide.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 98 (June 1-June 15, 2002): 1680.
Fortune 145 (June 10, 2002): 218.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (June 16, 2002): 7.
O. The Oprah Magazine 3 (June, 2002): 956.
Publishers Weekly 249 (April 29, 2002): 39.
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