Paranoid and Proud

What do gassy dogs have to do with the secret service?

Mark Costello
Big If
W.W. Norton

Secret Service agents lead unusual social lives. Bobbie, an aging beauty queen, gets into a three-way with George Will at the Republican National Convention but pines for her admiral boyfriend. Single mom Gretchen assures her adolescent son that classified technology ensures her invulnerability wherever she goes. Conspiracy theologian Lloyd plots out increasingly baroque assassination trajectories in hopes of perfecting the secure envelope. Mark Costello's ravishingly smart family saga-cum-thriller about the Service shows us these agents' world while a detail of them chaperone the vice president through a succession of so-called food-verb events. But its manifold pleasures--endlessly quotable one-liners, cogent insights into suburban doom, and a plot that crests in absurdist Grand Guignol--broaden this book into what The Corrections only aspired to be: a sweeping but coherently resolved panorama of how some of us live now.

Costello's genius is to seriously consider what would ensue if one didn't simply institutionalize paranoia but structured it, exalted it, cherished its infinite attentiveness. What if you worked in the Threats area and were routinely handed letters that read, "Dear Presadent Sir, You will DIE. at 6:02 in the Morning on May 4th this year by GUN. Sincerely, Leticia (Gomez) Jones"? You'd eventually treat it like any other job, that's what.

Costello's agents, endowed with rich inner lives and idiosyncratic but plausible philosophies, craft a workplace culture that is both recognizable and distinctive. Typically atypical might be decaying ladies' man Tashmo, who as a prairie hick dreamt of becoming a stock-car impresario and today holds fast to his pool-hall El Ranchero look as an adult Easterner, despite the fact that not a soul east of North Dakota can stand it. These agents wear their Kevlar tight because it chafes when it's too loose. On their infrequent days off, they scan passersby for weapons. They chew over old times: Veterans of the Reagan team harass John Hinckley during his furloughs from the mental hospital. They bask in reflected glory: Another agent lays claim to the Reagan mantle but actually only guarded Ron Jr. "The father didn't even like the kid. He used to say to me, 'Ballet,'" sneers one of the president's old team. "It tore him up inside."

"That's a lie," the wannabe insists. "They had the special bond of son and father."

Though he lends a sympathetic ear to each of these obsessives, Costello spends the most time with Violet and Jens Asplund, whose off-kilter realities might be traceable to their father. Walter Asplund was an eccentric New Hampshire insurance adjuster ("no one could read scorch marks like your father," a cop admiringly tells Vi) and a small-town heretic who voted Republican while maintaining a stout atheism, even scratching out God on paper money and replacing it with us. In different ways, both of his spawn seek to order the world in a manner that is at least personally legible. Vi joins the Service after burning out on low-end criminal investigations in New York's outer reaches: The Russians, her beat, pass $20s that make Andrew Jackson look like a transvestite vampire or one of the grimmer female martyrs.

Jens, a childhood science nerd, abandons his comp-sci Ph.D. to code monsters for "Big If," a multiplayer online game that resembles a post-apocalyptic Everquest overrun by product placements. His first success is a paradoxically vicious beast named Hamsterman; his last, Farty Pup, has fangs, claws, gales of flatulence, flaming ear wax, and a willingness to hump you. Jens is now weeks behind on Monster Todd, a slouchy teen with saggy jeans and skateboard.

Probing the lives and loves of his protagonists' families and co-workers with humane wit, Costello pulls off the (rare, for this kind of novel) trick of threading his cultural riffs into an actual plot. His deadpan stare into our current appetite for destruction (Jens's company battles its competitors for the copyright on various cataclysms) awakens more than a few shudders of complicity. As one expert remarks to Vi, even terror becomes boring if you give it time.

 
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