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<i>'Big If'</i> - Story of Female Secret Service Agent Nominated for National Book Award - 2002-11-03

Secret Service agents are more often seen than heard in the United States. Charged with protecting high ranking officials and their families, they can be spotted hovering silently in the background during Presidential speeches or political rallies. But they take center stage in a new novel called "Big If," by former federal prosecutor Mark Costello. The novel tells the story of a female secret service agent, and it's among the fiction nominees for this year's National Book Award.

Mark Costello met a lot of politicians and government officials during his years as a federal prosecutor. He met even more while working as an election campaign volunteer. But he says the people who intrigued him most during those encounters were the Secret Service agents trailing behind.

"In general, people who are drawn into law enforcement you meet some crazy, unpleasant, brutal, ugly, noble, heroic people," he says. "And I wanted to get a sense in the book of how being under constant pressure every day, for months and months, weeks and weeks, on for years, really I think warps them. But I also wanted to show how they can get the job done day after day."

"Big If" is about a sister and brother who grow up in a small New Hampshire town, then move in what seem like very different directions. Vi Asplund becomes a Secret Service bodyguard. Her brother Jens is a mathematical genius who goes to work for a computer software company.

But Mark Costello says he created both characters with a single idea in mind. "I was interested in purists and what happens to purists in the real world. Vi Asplund has this idea of service, and she sees the Secret Service as a very pure job. You're going to give yourself to protect someone else. Jens, her brother, is sort of a scientific purist. And this book is what happens when a purist goes out and finds a world that's very impure."

The book revolves around Vi Asplund's travels with a U.S. Vice President seeking his party's Presidential nomination. At the same time, her brother is developing a new computer war game called "Big If." Mark Costello says both his characters discover that the organizations they work for, and the people they work with, fall way short of their ideals. "I've known some Secret Service agents and have some good friends who do bodyguard work, and it turns out they are not a lot braver or smarter or anything else than the rest of us. They just have to get the job done, because they know if they have a bad day someone could be killed. And that really impressed me. And as far as the software world is concerned, Jens has a different kind of impurity he has to deal with. He has to deal with the commercial realities that a lot of people have to deal with, that in fact writers have to deal with, which is that what you create may be beautiful, but it is also going to become a product."

Out of these imperfect worlds, Mark Costello creates a cast of colorful, mismatched characters, many of them Secret Service agents. Vi's colleagues include a tough talking single mother, a tireless flirt who can't stop pursuing other men's wives, and a veteran agent turned security strategist named Lloyd Felker, who's obsessed with past assassination attempts.

As Vi follows the campaigning Vice President around the country, America becomes a roadmap of lurking dangers. Here's how the book describes the group's arrival in Texas, where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated decades before:

"Felker had briefed them on the specialness of Texas as an operational milieu. Texas was a carry state, he said. Anyone except a felon or a person judged insane by the state court system could, and did, carry a concealed handgun, and fenderbenders on the highways routinely erupted in small-arms fire. Felker said that Texas would always be the Valley of the Shadows to the Service. They had come here with a President, and had left eight hours later with a different President, and some things you can't completely live down, he said. Memory, futility, disgracethis was what they carried through the carry state."

For all their human flaws and failings, Mark Costello says Secret Service agents have willingly taken on a daunting assignment. They have to be prepared to die for someone elsesomeone they may not even like or respect. "First of all, they regard themselves as the best bodyguards in world history, and so it's pride in service. Number two, they are really connected to an idea, as one character says to her son, we can't let a handgun pick our leaders. I refuse to see you living in that world. So they have this sense that if we live in a country where there's a new President every nine months because there's a Hinckley, there's an Oswald, there's someone like that, that this country would fundamentally change."

Mark Costello published an earlier novel called "Bag Men," under the pseudonym John Flood. It was a thriller, and while he didn't want to write the same kind of book twice, there is a mounting sense in "Big If" that something catastrophic is going to happen. Something does, but Mark Costello says that's not the real point of the book.

Although he finished the novel just days before the terrorist attacks of September 11, the book deals with the kinds of anxieties that have become more commonplace since that day. "This sense of daily pressure I think is a condition of how we all live now. And that's why the book is half about the agents, and half about civilians. I wanted to write about how that might play out in the life of a real estate broker in a village in New Hampshire, or the computer programmer Jens trying to get a three year old to bed, trying to get him into the bathtub, get him off the school in the morning," he says. "How does that play out in the most ordinary moments of the ordinary people in our lives?"

Mark Costello says his book's title has a double meaning. "Big If" is the name of a computer game being developed by Vi Asplund's brother. But it also refers to the state of uncertainty that Americans are struggling to cope withand that's long been a way of life for the U.S. Secret Service.

"Big If" was published by W.W. Norton Company, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10110.

This is the second in a series of reports featuring authors nominated for this year's National Book Awards, to be announced November 20