The Washington Post
Citizen Vinceby Jess Walter
"It's the fall of 1980, eight days before a presidential election that pits the downtrodden Jimmy Carter against the suspiciously sunny Ronald Reagan ("Are you better off than you were four years ago?"). In a quiet house in Spokane, Washington, Vince Camden wakes up at 1:59 A.M., pockets his weekly stash of stolen credit cards, and drops in on an all-night poker game… See more details below
"It's the fall of 1980, eight days before a presidential election that pits the downtrodden Jimmy Carter against the suspiciously sunny Ronald Reagan ("Are you better off than you were four years ago?"). In a quiet house in Spokane, Washington, Vince Camden wakes up at 1:59 A.M., pockets his weekly stash of stolen credit cards, and drops in on an all-night poker game with his low-life friends on his way to his witness-protection job dusting crullers at Donut Make You Hungry. This is the sum of Vince's new life: donuts, forged credit cards, marijuana smuggled in jars of volcanic ash, and a neurotic hooker girlfriend who dreams of being a real-estate agent." But when a familiar face shows up in town, Vince realizes that no matter how far you think you've run from your past ... it's always close behind you. Over the course of the next unforgettable week, on the run from Spokane to New York's Lower East Side, Vince Camden will negotiate a maze of obsessive cops, eager politicians, and emerging mobsters, only to find that redemption might just exist in - of all places - a voting booth.
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One day you know more dead people than live ones.
The thought greets Vince Camden as he sits up in bed, frantic, casting around a dark bedroom for proof of his existence and finding only props: nightstand, dresser, ashtray, clock. Vince breathes heavily. Sweats in the cool air. Rubs his eyes to shake the dust of these musings, not a dream exactly, this late-sleep panic -- fine glass thin as paper, shattered and swirling, cutting as it blows away.
Vince Camden pops his jaw, leans over, and turns off the alarm just as the one, five, and nine begin their fall. Each morning at 1:59 he sits up like this and turns off the clock radio in the split second before two and the shrill blast of alarm. He wonders: How is a thing like that possible? And yet ... if you can manage such a trick -- every morning waking up a few ticks before your alarm goes off -- why couldn't you count all the dead people you know?
Start with Grandparents. Two sets. One grandfather had a second wife. That's five. Vince runs a toothbrush over his molars. Mother and father. Seven. Does a stillborn sister count? No. A person has to have been alive to be dead. By the time he finishes his shower, blow-dries his hair, and gets dressed -- gray slacks, longsleeve black dress shirt, two buttons open -- he's gone through family, neighbors, and former associates: already thirty-four people he knows to be dead. Wonders if that's high, if it's normal to know so many dead people.
Normal. That word tails him from a safe distance most days. He opens a drawer and pulls out a stack of forged credit cards, looks at the names on the cards: Thomas A. Spaulding. Lane Bailey. Margaret Gold. He imagines Margaret Gold's lovely normal life, a crocheted afghan tossed over the back of her sofa. How many dead people could Margaret Gold possibly know?
Vince counts out ten credit cards -- including Margaret Gold's -- and puts these in the pocket of his windbreaker. Fills the other pocket with Ziploc bags of marijuana. It's 2:16 in the morning when Vince slides his watch onto his wrist, careful not to catch the thick hair on his forearm. Oh yeah, Davie Lincoln -- retarded kid used to carry money in his mouth while he ran errands for Coletti in the neighborhood. Choked on a half-dollar. Thirty-five.
Vince stands in the tiny foyer of his tiny house, if you can call a coatrack and a mail slot a foyer. Zips his windbreaker and snaps his cuffs out like a Vegas dealer leaving the table. Steps out into the world.
About Vince Camden: he is thirty-six and white. Single. Six feet tall, 160 pounds, broad-shouldered and thin, like a martini glass. Brown and blue, as the police reports have recorded his hair and eyes. His mouth curls at the right corner, thick eyebrows go their own way, and this casts his face in perpetual smirk, so that every woman who has ever been involved with him eventually arrives at the same expression, hands on hips, head cocked: Please. Be serious.
Vince is employed in midlevel management, food industry: baking division -- donuts. Generally, there is less to making donuts than one might assume. But Vince likes it, likes getting to work at 4:30 in the morning and finishing before lunch. He feels as if he's gotten one over on the world, leaving his place of employment for lunch and simply not coming back. He's realizing this is a fixed part of his personality, this desire to get one over on the world. Maybe there is a hooky gene.
Outside, he pulls the collar of his windbreaker against his cheeks. Cold this morning: late October. Freezing, in fact -- the steam leaks from his mouth and reminds him of an elementary school experiment with dry ice, which reminds him of Mr. Harlow, his fifth-grade teacher. Hanged himself after it became common knowledge that he was a bit too fond of his male students. Thirty-six.
It's a serene world from your front steps at 2:20 in the morning: dim porch lights on houses black with sleep; sidewalks split the dark dewed lawns. But the night has a grimmer hold on Vince's imagination, and he shivers with the creeping sensation -- even as he reminds himself it's impossible -- that he's on the menu tonight.
" So what ... YOU want me to do this thing or not?" The two men stare across the bench seat of a burgundy Cadillac Seville. The driver asks: "How much would something like that cost?"
The bigger man, in the passenger seat, is impatient, restless, but he pauses to think. It's a fair question. After all, it is 1980, and the service industries are mired in this stagnant economy, too. Are the criminal sectors subject to the same sad market forces: inflation, deflation, stagflation? Recession? Do thugs suffer double-digit unemployment?
Do criminals feel malaise?
"Gratis," quotes the passenger.
"Gratis?" repeats the driver, shifting in the leather seat.
"Yeah." And after a pause: "Means free."
"I know what it means. I was just surprised. That's all. You're saying you'll help me out with this guy for free?"
"I'm saying we'll work something out."
"But it won't cost me anything?"
"We'll work it out."
And it says something about the man driving the Cadillac that in addition to not knowing what the word gratis means, he also doesn't realize that nothing is free.Citizen Vince
A Novel. Copyright © by Jess Walter. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Jess Walter is the author of six novels, including the bestsellers Beautiful Ruins and The Financial Lives of the Poets, the National Book Award finalist The Zero, and Citizen Vince, the winner of the Edgar Award for best novel. His short fiction has appeared in Harper's, McSweeney's, and Playboy, as well as The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. He lives in his hometown of Spokane, Washington.
- Spokane, Washington
- Date of Birth:
- July 20, 1965
- Place of Birth:
- Spokane, Washington
- B.A., Eastern Washington University, 1987
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Could not put this one down. Delightfully quirky characters, thought- provoking ramblings, ingenious plot. Must read.
Citizen Vince is a great tale of a fairly young male with a sturdy background in crime. Marty who now goes by the name of Vince is in a witness protection program and is being hunted by an old foe. This story crime, sex, money and politics will surely keep the reader attached for hours upon hours.
New Yorker Marty Hagen earned his first merit badge at fifteen years old; over two decades later his résumé is filled with felonies, convictions and other activity although his rap sheet contains no violent incidents. The Feds become aware of Marty as a valuable tool. They enroll him in the witness protection program under the name Vince Camden residing in Spokane, Washington working as a manager at Donut Make You Hungry. The adjustment is initially a killer for the Manhattan street guy, but soon finds he need not rush to survive. He breaks family tradition registering to vote in the upcoming Reagan Carter presidential race. --- However after two calm years on the West Coast, the easterner¿s serene life shatters when hit man Ray (Sticks) Scatieri arrives to provide mob payback. Marty actually likes his lifestyle and wants to keep living it for decades to come. He need to figure out how to cancel the contract when Sticks is the best at completing his mission and has a reputation to maintain. --- Readers will appreciate the metamorphoses of small time crook Vince into CITIZEN VINCE who finds he likes himself when he is productive in a positive way. Vince¿s path to solid citizenship is not easy with tiny setbacks that could avalanche into a throwback to the felonious Vince if he falls through the donut hole back to the ¿easy¿ life. Jess Walter writes a fabulous character study that makes the case that to change behavior conditions must change also (Einstein¿s definition of insanity comes to mind). CITIZEN VINCE is a terrific insightful tale that subtly makes a societal case on the significance of the environment on the person.--- Harriet Klausner
Genius dialogue and outright gripping characters make Citizen Vince hard to put down. But the plot being so intriguing midway through leaves just hoping Walter can pull it off. The ending proves inconsistent and frankly a letdown to a book that look so promising until the final ten pages. Yet still a must read to be read slowly and openly to fully digest everything Walter conveys .
Repeat this phrase: "literary gangster novel." Sounds unlikely, doesn't it? Something like "good airline service" or "endearing political ad." Yet that's what Jess Walter has pulled off here: the tale of a minor hood's struggle toward grace through atonement, poker and voting. Vince Camden -- the titular mook -- is the sort of character who either gets clipped in the first reel of your typical mafia film, or ends up being the pawn of (or Judas to) the Big Boss. Yet in Citizen Vince, he's the star. When we first meet him, he's busy flushing away his clean start as an inmate of the Witness Protection program, associating with fellow ex-felons and running his two-bit scams on the side. But when redemption arrives in the form of his voter registration card, he spends the next week wrestling with his internal and external demons to become worthy of his new life. The narrator's (third-person present) voice carries just the right tone of weariness. The hard-case dialog has the snap of truthiness; real wiseguys probably aren't quite this together, but it sounds right in a way we've come to expect from countless films and TV shows. The inside of Vince's head -- where we spend a great deal of time -- sounds like it ought to; none of the grand mal philosophizing that can come with literary aspirations, but rather the small, homely realizations of a man with little formal education and a lot of street learning. And while the ultimate point of this is the journey of a man’s soul, there’s murder, mayhem, and deadly betrayal -- action you won’t find in The Corrections. My quibbles are few. A subplot involving a rookie police detective isn’t securely fastened to the main story and wanders off its own path. While the setting is the week leading up to the 1980 Presidential election, the action and characters seem unmoored from the period; move the story to 1960 or 1992 and not much would need to change. The general mood of gloom and decay that I remember from that time is largely missing here. A mercifully brief detour into the minds of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, while persuasive, drops from the sky unannounced and unneeded and makes mostly for a what-the-frack? moment. Citizen Vince is one of those books that sounds like it ought not to work, but it does. It’s a short, fast read that challenges preconceived notions on both sides. For genre fans, it shows that “literary” can have a plot and action and not consist only of five hundred pages of navel-gazing. For those who wouldn’t consider reading a crime novel unless it’s in its original Hungarian, Walters shows a main character can have bigger problems than his wife sleeping with his therapist and still concern himself with his destiny and salvation.
First rate. Looking forward to reading more. I will never think of Spokane in the same way. A real page turner (read it in one sitting) filled with great prose.
Citizen Vince is a terrific read - fast-paced and clever. I've already bought The Zero and can't wait to immerse myself in more of Jess Walter's brilliant writing..... Vince Camden is a petty thief from New York who, thanks to witness protection, is able to start life anew in Spokane, Washington. Only he doesn't really begin again, choosing to resume his old scams and hang out with shady characters. It isn't until he receives a voter registration card that he starts contemplating what it would mean to be a real citizen. Then when Vince comes face-to-face with his past, in the form of a hit man who plans to kill him, he's forced to make choices that will define his character and determine his future. Interwoven into the story is the 1980 presidential election, the candidates' thoughts, and Vince's right to vote for the first time - metaphors for his freedom to choose who he wants to be.... The characters are beautifully drawn, especially Vince who embarks on a dangerous journey in order to settle the debts of his past, anticipating the normal life he could have if he survives. Until now, he's lived like a ghost, flawed and afraid, but he wants something more. In this way, he is like Beth. Their dreams are almost heart-breaking in their simplicity, but they represent hope..... Citizen Vince is a provocative story of redemption that is sometimes sad and often funny. The witty dialogue, the author's distinctive voice, and the three-dimensional characters make this a more than enjoyable read. Add Walter's slick prose and you have a fantastic read. What it boils down is this: everyone makes choices in their life that ultimately shape who they are. Vince, who is essentially a decent guy, is at a crossroads where he can either run or fight. Then there's the third choice, which is to do the right thing. Like President Carter in the story, as well as the rookie detective Dupree, Vince Camden can choose to 'walk in his integrity'.