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Big If: A Novel Hardcover – June 17, 2002


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Substantial insider detail and highly developed, creatively drawn characters help make Mark Costello's Big If a highly memorable work. Struggling to find her place in the Secret Service, Vi Asplund has accepted the high-stress position of guarding the vice president during his New Hampshire primary run. Her brother Jens, co-creator of the realistically brutal computer game Big If, can cash in his lucrative stock options soon if his increasingly troubled conscience and mental imbalance don't overwhelm him first. Both are reeling from the death of their father Walter, a respected insurance-adjusting atheist. Vi's boss Gretchen, a single mom, is trying to maintain unity among her team as well as a connection to her troubled son. Her diverse crew includes Tashmo, a veteran agent with an overactive libido, and Lloyd Felker, a revered protection theorist and creator of The Dome, the Service-implemented area of safety.

While Jens reluctantly bows to pressure from his superiors to create human-like monsters for Big If, Felker's mysterious disappearance heightens apprehensions among the team, who are increasingly uncertain about their ability to protect the vice president against a dense and volatile public. Costello offers a remarkable level of accessible and fascinating governmental information, and he's rendered his cast with inventive depth, such as Tashmo's fixation on Ronald Reagan and the woman on the Land O'Lakes logo, or Walter's habit of crossing out the word "God" on every dollar bill. Big If is a rare novel: a complex examination of conflicting American ideals that's also accessible, fun, and totally worthwhile. --Ross Doll

From Publishers Weekly

Costello's second novel, the first under his own name (he published Bag Men as John Flood), may well be the literary discovery of the season. Organized around the presidential campaign of an unnamed vice-president who is barely glimpsed, Costello shines the plot light on the man's Secret Service guard. In Costello's America, the citizenry has given up on politics except as sort of a minor holiday; passionate political commitment belongs primarily to potential assassins. The Dome (the Secret Service's nickname) is headed by Gretchen Williams, a black single mother from L.A. haunted by the specter of riots. Her crew contains two veterans of the Reagan years: Lloyd Felker (a protection intellectual and the founder of the Dome) and Tashmo, a '70s-style philanderer suffering through the waning of his adulterous impulses. There's also the diva of Protection, beautiful, horny Bobbie Niles, and heroine Vi Asplund. Vi comes from Center Effing, N.H., where her father, Walter, was an atheist Republican insurance adjuster. Vi joined the Dome after Walter died (the compliment at his funeral from an arson squad cop was that no one could read scorch marks like her father ), and Jens, Vi's brother, works for Big If, an interactive fantasy role-playing game company. Jens is suffering a crisis of cyber faith: his code is beautiful, but the end products are literally monsters. Costello moves easily between riffs, with a truly magical feeling for insider's knowledgehow a cop sits at a bar, how a real estate agent spiels a sale, how an insurance adjuster analyzes damage. Costello might be this season's Jonathan Franzen, a dazzling literary novelist with popular appeal.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (June 17, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393051161
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393051162
  • Product Dimensions: 0.7 x 0.1 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,183,143 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

2.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Grant Barber on May 22, 2002
Format: Hardcover
With this book blurbed by Franzen and Foster Wallace you know sort of what you're in for: verbal brilliance, unusual settings, darker humor. Costello does not disappoint. His novel about Vi, a Secret Service agent assigned to an unnamed Vice President in the midst of a Presidential campaign, also tells of Vi's larger family, her collegues, their 'down time' lives, and a refracted view of America. While Costello seems to fit right into a certain subcategory of novelists (afore mentioned Franzen and Wallace--what category would that be labelled I wonder?) he isn't a clone. He has a more narrative driven, accessible novel here, one where you get to care about some of the characters; certainly he is very very talented with the language; quick wit.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on June 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Often described as a light-hearted "riff," rather than a satire, this novel of government and politics casts an eye on the Secret Service and its all-too-human agents. Working to protect an unnamed Vice-Presidential candidate on a pre-primary visit to New Hampshire, the assigned agents are also dealing simultaneously with their own insecurities, quirks, and numerous dysfunctions. As this wry novel evolves, the reader discovers that the differences between those we employ to protect us and those we want to be protected from may be very slim, indeed.

Half a dozen Secret Service members, their spouses, parents, children, and lovers; an equal number of computer programmers for Big If, a multiplayer war game on the Web; and the Vice-President, his staff, and campaign workers constitute a huge cast of characters, but each is so idiosyncratic, and the minutiae of his/her daily life so completely articulated, that the characters are memorable, if not fully developed. As Costello expands his scope beyond that of the campaign, he pokes fun at child-rearing practices, prison work-release programs, the real estate market, the expectations of newly-moneyed trophy wives, the addiction to violent computer games, and even the get-out-the-vote efforts of campaign volunteers.

The reader must be patient with this novel. Plot is not a major concern, as the book meanders through the lives and backgrounds of multiple characters. Vi Asplund, the main character, receives only slightly more emphasis than other characters, and conflict and dramatic action are minimal, dependent more upon the characters' past histories than upon new events.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Ted Burke on June 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This is a superb comedy of contemporary American life involving a low-level Secret Service agent who finds she must get reacquainted with her computer-genius brother when she takes a respite from the paranoid turns and twists of her job. This is a book of richly skewed characters doing their best to make sense of their lives. Costello's prose is alive with the things of our life, and is superb at demonstrating the clash between happiness material items promise and the world that denies such rewards. He is the master of setting forth a metaphor and letting it travel through a storyline just beneath the surface, operating silently, almost invisibly, always effectively.

Their father, in the first portion of the book , is a moderate Republican insurance investigator of scholarly reading habits who happens to be a principled atheist. You cannot have both insurance, the practice of placing a monetary remuneration on unavoidable disaster, and assurance, which has religion promising protection from evil and disaster. The children, in turn, assume careers that seem to typify the dualism their father opposed, son Jens becoming a programmer for the Big If on line game for which he writes "monster behavior code" that attempts to outsmart human players and have them meet a hypothetical destruction.

Daughter Vi, conversely, becomes a Secret Service agent, schooled in the theory encoded in The Certainties, a set of writings that lays out the details, nuances and psychology of extreme protection. These are world views in collision, and Costellos' prose is quick with the telling detail,the flashing insight, the cutting remark.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Z. Blume on May 29, 2003
Format: Paperback
Many of the previous reviews either rave or absolutely rant about this book, but I think both are unfair representations for potential readers. The books proponents note that Costello writes well and provides interesting "insiders" perspectives of campaign politics from a secret service agent's point of view, the operations of an Internet business, and modern family life. He really does do a good job of describing the lives of the characters and weaving their narratives together. As for the naysayers, they are correct that the story has no plot and you never really care about a particular character and when the book is done, it isn't something that leaves you wanting more. I am sure this was intentional by Costello, but for my money and I think many casual readers, it is not really what they want. I will not remember Big If in a year, I do not want Costello to come out with a sequel to quinch my thirst for this story, and it isn't the first book I'll ever recommend to any friend. It was worth the short time it took to read, but it would be a better library book, one you don't have to pay for and won't take up space on your shelf for more than a month because you won't want to read it again in the future.
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