America, as conjured up in Mark Costello's novel about a Secret Service team protecting the vice president during the first stages of presidential primary season, is a rich and exceedingly anxious nation. Costello portrays the electoral process as a sequence of photo ops, stage managed to achieve two objectives: make the candidate seem like a man of the people and keep the people (including potential assassins) well away from the candidate.

Costello distributes his plot among the revolving cast of characters who make up the "Dome." In Secret Service lingo, the "Dome" is a contingent of agents assigned to protect a politician. The team's leader, Gretchen Williams, is a single black mother with a healthy dread of riot and an instinctive reluctance to lead this particular team. Under her is a group that includes remnants of the old Reagan guard, still licking their wounds about Hinckley; a sexpot exiled from the president's daughter's detachment for committing some vaguely erotic crime of lse majestŽ; and Vi Asplund, our anchoring point of view. Vi comes from New Hampshire, the state that has elevated the presidential primary into an art form. Her brother, Jens, still lives there, cranking out elegant code for BigIf, producer of a computer war game featuring apocalyptic serial killers and mutants.

While BigIf magnifies the horrors that lurk in the dark side of the America psyche, the Dome is professionally fixated on finding their real embodiments the people who blow up abortion clinics, who send threatening letters, who seem to be stalking the candidates. Gretchen, trying to explain her job to her son, thinks, "Someday she would tell him all about it, how she felt out there, hanging on the VP's flank, deep in what agents called vacant mode, a stone defensive Zen, the mind both clean and empty except for what it sees." Costello writes with authority, moving with perfect echolocation among the vernaculars of a dozen niche occupations while building the story's momentum to its surprise ending. Readers looking for the next Franzen or DeLillo should check Costello out. He's the real thing. Roger Gathman is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas.

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