Sleep deprived and paranoia prone

The ragged realism in this edgy satire of the Secret Service world looks more ominous every day

JOB OPPORTUNITY: See the world! Mingle with famous people! Are you a physically fit individual willing to sacrifice your family, friends, morality, and peace of mind? Are you eager to use your body as a bullet shield to protect craven egomaniacs? (Free medical care!) If you'd like to live and sleep as though everyone around you is a psychotic killer, you could have a future with the Secret Service.

Mark Costello's black comedy, "Big If," shows us the men and women who would answer that ad. It's a wonder such people exist. It's a wonder such a book exists – a sprawling portrayal of the natural disasters, social unrest, criminal intent, and international threats that the Secret Service repels minute by minute without a blink.

We think of these blank-faced guards – when we think of them at all – as poised to sacrifice themselves, ready to catch bullets when the need arises, but Costello shows them as people who sacrifice their lives every day, throwing their hearts and souls into the paths of a constant onslaught of terrors that never make the evening news.

At the center of the novel is the vice president, but we can't see him directly. He's like a black hole: He influences and sucks up everything around him. We never even learn his name or his party affiliation. Those details, after all, are irrelevant to the men and women who create a mile-wide dome of protection around him as he runs for president against "a young senator with fresh ideas and much better hair."

One of the remarkable things Costello does in this novel is imagine a gender-neutral Secret Service, and in the process he creates some fantastic – and fantastically tough – female characters.

Gretchen Williams had to be forced to serve as chief of the vice president's detail, but once she accepted the position, assassins watch out. She's a tough professional.

When she's not on duty protecting the vice president from all the evil forces in the world, she's at home trying to protect her teenage son from all the evil forces in the world. Both jobs are equally frightening.

Her best agent is Vi Asplund, a young woman who transferred into protection to distract herself from the grief of her father's death. He was an insurance agent and an eccentric atheist who taught her that disasters are par for the course – good preparation for this profession.

Other agents pass into the novel's cross hairs as it scans this rare group. Tashmo betrays his wife and his best friend in a desperate search for sexual thrills; Bobbie devolves into moral idiocy looking for intimacy; Felker gives up his sanity rather than acknowledge that he can't anticipate every threat.

All of them must constantly deal with the VP's campaign manager, who's determined to show his candidate as a man of the people, among the people, eating a Big Mac, reading to schoolchildren, and generally putting his life at risk every time a camera appears. Costello gives a dead-on portrayal of political marketing with all the "carefully impromptu drop-ins" that the media demand.

A disastrous campaign stop during a flood in Illinois is worth the price of the book alone. It's a fantastically frenetic display of American culture and literary skill, a great rush of comedy and disaster swirling through terrors as personal as losing a photo album and as monumental as losing a president.

Costello has such confidence in the ragged realism of his story, and it pays off. Despite its relative brevity, it's full of subplots that lead everywhere – fascinating riffs on real estate salesmen, abortion protesters, infidelity, the anxieties of the nouveau riche. These are details he can't resist pursuing, just like the little tributaries of death that the Secret Service must track to their source through a culture thirsty for violence.

A witty but equally disturbing parallel plot follows Jens, the brother of one of the agents. He's a computer programmer with Big If, the world's most popular online deep-immersion war game. While his sister struggles to thwart the plans of assassins great and small, Jens gives virtual life to ever more horrific killers.

Costello saves his best satire for the corporate monster that produces this game and the marketplace eager to exploit millions of people's murder fantasies. For a monthly fee, Big If provides subscribers with a seamless melding of the pleasures of shopping and killing. One of their most famous characters, Farty Pup, "had fangs, claws, gales of flatulence, flaming ear wax, a pair of Sony PC speakers, a Cub Cadet four-wheel-drive snow blower, a Minolta office copier, a Yamaha Disklavier GranTouch piano, and a Sealy Posturepedic Mattress."

Jens's initial ambivalence about using his skills for such a dubious enterprise turns to real anxiety as the marketing department demands "more dread." In a particularly memorable business meeting, the director announces, "We need human monsters. People want to shoot a face." It's a caustic, witty, and ultimately moving portrayal of a man caught in the crevice between greed and morality.

Costello may have done us a secret service with this edgy satire of the world just after tomorrow. The agents are paid to anticipate attacks exotic and mundane, but beneath "Big If" roars an ominous threat to the body politic that we all ignore at our peril.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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