Recommended for: anyone looking for a tense, character-driven, profound tale of redemption.
Read from May 24 to June 08, 2013 — I own a copy, read count: 1
Gritty realism is the perfect way to describe Jess Walter’s third novel, Citizen Vince.
From the opening sentence, “One day you know more dead people than live ones,” this Spokane native reeled me in, and I strongly suspected that this was the right book for me, at that given time. More importantly, I saw something special about Walter’s incredible precision that I simply had to have more of… and I did, obviously. By the end of the night, I’d read a good forty, fifty pages (I’m ordinarily a slow reader.)
“Why couldn’t you count all the dead people you knew?”
The novel’s protagonist isn’t a very likable guy. Much of his hard exterior, his in-your-face disposition, stems from his shady upbringing in New York, which eventually led to a lifetime of crime.
Vince Camden wants to change. He’s witnessed the awful things he’s done, and now must live with those choices. He doesn’t like what he sees, the person he’s become.
For the most part, he managed to maintain a somewhat “healthier” lifestyle (due largely to his placement in witness protection,) but one fateful day, his entire world comes crashing down on him.
Brilliantly juxtaposed against this intrigue is the 1980 R.Reagan/J.Carter election.
Aside from its character-driven, well executed prose, there were two specific aspects that really resonate. I find myself reflection on them often, even today, a week after finishing it.
Most, though certainly not all, of the story takes place in Spokane, Washington. My birth city. Rarely do I encounter books set in the same state, let alone the exact city I was born in. That element alone interested me very much. But once I’d become fully immersed, many familiar sites, smells, textures and even sounds entered the forefront of my mind, making the visualization process seem effortless. This author makes it look so easy, though in reality, writing is nothing but simple or effortless.
For instance, there’s one scene where Vince meets up with an acquaintance at Dick’s Drive-In. It’s a 1950’s style burger joint, complete with all those little details that make it a genuine establishment: its utter lack of in-door dining forces the customer to wait in line to place their order, then either get it to go or enjoy a juicy Whammy burger, sizzling fries, and thick malt-like shake at one of the ideally placed picnic tables. Now in my mind, I could picture flocks of seagulls, storming overhead, as they patiently awaited a dropped french fry or discarded pieces of hamburger. I hear them squawking even now as they grow impatient.
The other aspect which I found particularly interesting was the political subplot. It fascinated me for hours. And the fact that Vince was equally interested-if not more so– made it very germane and deeply profound. The most cryptic chapter (at first, anyway,) is shown through then governor Ronald Reagan’s perspective. In it, Walter gives the reader an all too brief glimpse into the political lifestyle, some of the tolls of a presidential campaign, and his general demeanor. Walter even went so far as to reveal various nuances about the man, which spoke volumes and certainly helped differentiate his character, despite the fact that he isn’t well-rounded at all, and this is the sole chapter shown from his perspective. Very interesting, indeed!
Around the halfway-three quarter mark, several key players use incessant strings of profanity that just seem excessive and unnecessary. It reminded me of a Quentin Tarantino film, where every other word or sentence is colored by a few choice words here and there. And ordinary, foul language in books doesn’t really bother me. I’m used to the likes of Stephen King, after all. But while said expletives didn’t feel uncharacteristic in any way, shape or form, the author could have toned it down a little bit, and still achieved the desired effect.
I do, however, greatly admire his refusal to sugarcoat his ever dark, gritty world. I think there’s a fine line between excessiveness and being uncompromising.
I’m not at all surprised that Citizen Vince was the recipient of several awards, including the Edgar for best novel (2005,) NPR Fresh Air Top Ten Book (2005,) and the Wilwaukee Sentinel Favorite Book (2005,) amongst others.
Towards the end, it slowed down ever so slightly, but Walter’s consistently profound insight basically evened everything out for me. A little later on, the action dragged and the dialogue could have been minimized. But that’s just me. These minor criticisms certainly didn’t damper the reader experience. I can’t recall a single scene that bored me. On the contrary, the pages kept turning.
As the final confrontation grew to an intense head, I found the solution slightly unrealistic and hard to believe, to an extent. Just as Vince seeks redemption, Walter redeems himself here with a satisfying lump of insight previously unknown to the reader. Admittedly, it does seem highly unlikely, it does work.
I would have given this novel a significantly lower rating, if not for the monumental twist which doesn’t come until the very end. Not only was it 100% characteristic of Vince, it isn’t something one reads every day. Or every other day, for that matter. I did not see it coming at all!!
In hindsight, Vince Camden is almost akin to an adult role model.
“Entertaining…refreshing…wry precision and expert timing…Citizen Vince arrives with sky-high praise…[but] the book’s fusion of humor, crime and politics may be recommendation enough.”
-Janet Maslin, New York Times
Up next, We Live In Water, Jess Walter’s first collection (though surely not the last) of short stories!