Redemption is one of the big themes in fiction and narrative film. Alas, the sheer pervasiveness of redemption stories means that they really have to sparkle to stand out. Here, Walter flirts with greatness but never quite achieves it with a semi-crime story set in the days leading up to the 1980 presidential election. Vince Camden is a donut-maker in Spokane, Washington, living a fairly quiet routine of work, sleep, and late nights of cards at Sam's Pit -- a place kind of like Cheers, but with cops, crooks, and hookers as patrons. (This was a real place at 528 E. 2nd St. that shut down in the early '90s after several police raids.) The reader quickly learns that Vince is in the FBI's witness-protection program, having given evidence in a small-time New York mob case after getting stuck with a loan he couldn't repay to people that really don't like it when you don't repay loans. In addition to his donut gig, Vince is building up a little nest egg by running the same credit card number scam he ran in New York and dealing a little pot. He's even got a little romantic interest, with a crush on legal secretary who comes in for donuts every day, plus the hooker with a heart of gold he met at Sam's Pit. With his new identity, he's even eligible to vote for the first time, a symbol of his "rebirth" that becomes a totem of his new life.
However, as in all the great noir films, the past comes a-knockin'. First, his partners in the credit card scam start getting all squirrelly on him, and then a face from "the world' shows up. "The World" is, of course, the East Coast mob scene he ran away from. And like all good heroes from Mythology 101, Vince realizes he must journey to the underworld to face his demons in order to actualize his redemption. In his case, it means a harrowing journey back to New York to face up to the mobsters he wronged--including a dangerously capricious young John Gotti. Meanwhile, in Spokane, sharp rookie Detective Dupree realizes Vince is at the center of the bodies that are starting to pile up, and is hot on his trail.
This is all pretty normal crime genre stuff, but Walter makes it sparkle and sizzle with vivid scene-setting and crisp dialogue. Some of the scenes, such as Vince's epic poker game back in New York are simply scream to be filmed. Many of the characters are larger than life, but they never really get over the top. It's quality stuff that brings to mind another young American writer, David Benioff (The 25th Hour). It's not perfect though -- Walter gets a little ambitious and tries to weave in a whole parallel thing about the Reagan/Carter election and the zeitgeist of the country, and it doesn't really work. Two portions which imagine the inner thoughts of the presidential hopefuls are too precious and self-concious, although I did like how he worked an Anderson volunteer and a local Republican candidate into the action. But Vince's agonizing over who to vote for and his insistence on casting his ballot end up feeling rather forced by the end. Still, it's a good read and one that will have me checking out more of Walter's writing in the future.
on 5 January 2012
Once in a while you read something that makes you realize why you enjoy reading in the first place. I am an avid reader and book reviewer and at a conservative estimate I have read over a thousand books. When I say that investigative journalist and author Jess Walter's `Citizen Vince' is one of the top five books I have ever read I am not succumbing to unjustified hyperbole. I went into this one feeling a little jaded to be honest. Well, in a very short time indifference gave way to fascination and guilty enjoyment.
The novel concerns one Vince Camden, a nondescript thirty six year old donut maker in Spokane. There seems nothing at all remarkable or interesting about him until you learn his real name is Marty Hagen, a criminal since his teens and originally from New Jersey. He has been given a new identity by the Witness Protection Program. Since testifying against the mob his rights have been restored including his right to vote: something `Citizen Vince' has never done before. Voting in the coming 1980 Presidential election suddenly becomes the most important thing in his life - a symbol of redemption that even someone with his background can change.
But as with all things in real life your past can have an unpleasant way of revisiting you and Vince's arrives in the shape of a very nasty hit man. With just three days to go to Election Day Vince must avoid crooks, cops and a demented and determined killer as he tries to save not only himself but also his dreams that include Beth, a waif he is involved with and a simple life that he secretly covets.
This could easily have become a shamelessly corny flag waver with a Capraesque feel permeating proceedings. It could also have fallen into `Mean Streets' and `Goodfellas' territory by being too violent and too gritty. That Walter manages to deftly avoid two potential traps is testament to his talents as a writer. It really shows in his writing that he is also a native of Spokane and his descriptions of the place are vivid and interesting.
The people are well drawn and entirely believable. These are complicated and fallible human beings and not just mere ciphers for the plot. Walter also has an excellent ear for dialogue and accents and even when his characters are not talking their actions communicate. Every nuance, every tic makes this gripping and compelling.
This novel is dark, funny, scary, thrilling and at times surprisingly poignant and moving. In fact I never for one moment expected to be as involved and engaged in a story about a former criminal trying to change his life.
The Presidential election and its impact on the central character are handled well. Apart from a few unnecessary thoughts and insights from the candidates (the novels only weak point) it is the act of voting and becoming part of something bigger that is important rather than choosing sides or following a particular ideology.
Yes the world is flawed and Vince's world which is full of crooks, mobsters, gamblers, drunks, pimps and hookers is achingly bleak; yet rather than wallowing in a `I told you so' narrative, this manages to be uplifting as well as dark.
This book had me totally and helplessly hooked with its characters struggles and motivations and is full of twists and unexpected events. Most importantly Walter makes us care for the likes of Vince and Beth and co-workers and associates like the hyperactive Tic, or the world-weary Clay. We are terrified of contract killer Ray Sticks who kills for pleasure and we admire the tenacity and basic decency of Detective Alan Dupree.
I cannot remember the last time I read a book that managed to capture time and place so well. You are right there in the Autumn/Fall of Spokane with this mixed bag of for the most part unsavoury characters, yet you cannot help but be drawn in to their world and their individual struggles.
This is cracking stuff that transcends the crime novel and carries a much deeper powerful message about taking responsibility as well as our basic primal need to belong.
on 29 September 2010
I first heard about citizen Vice in Nick Hornby's book Polysallabric Spree. In which he reviews all the books he has read in a year. I had never heard ofthe author, Jess Walter befor, But Horby praised the book highly. I thoughly enjoyed it. The main caracter & story grab you from the first page. Vince is in the witness protection program. And his past threatens to catch up with him. Its a great story. Great characters. A love intrest. Plenty of violence. Thoughly Reccommended.
on 16 September 2014
I started reading this book and after the first dozen pages believed it was not for me. However, I persisted and was glad I did.Vince, a former mobster, became with each page a more and more likeable character. By the end, I sincerely wished him well. There are plenty of plot twists along the way to make it an engaging read.