Citizen Vince

Citizen Vince

by Jess Walter


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At 1:59 a.m. in Spokane, Washington—eight days before the 1980 presidential election—Vince Camden pockets his stash of stolen credit cards and drops by an all-night poker game before heading to his witness-protection job dusting crullers at Donut Make You Hungry. Along with a neurotic hooker girlfriend, this is the total sum of Vince's new life. But when a familiar face shows up in town, Vince realizes his sordid past is still too close behind him. During the next unforgettable week, he'll negotiate a coast-to-coast maze of obsessive cops, eager politicians, and assorted mobsters—only to find that redemption might exist, of all places, in the voting booth.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061577659
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/17/2008
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 275,374
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About 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

Read an Excerpt

Citizen Vince
A Novel

Chapter One

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.

Reading Group Guide

Group Questions and Topics for Discussion

  1. The epigraph of Citizen Vince comes from the Tao Te Ching: "A great nation is like a great man ... he thinks of his enemy as the shadow that he himself casts." How does Ray Sticks serve Vince's shadow? Who is the shadow that Dupree must confront? And Beth? Jimmy Carter?

  2. Vince Camden's interior monologue is often in the second person ("One day you know more dead people than live ones.") What does this say about him? When do we generally think of ourselves as you, in the second person? How is Vince's interior monologue sparked by the presidential debate?

  3. As he's listening to the debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Vince thinks that we sometimes miss the larger tides of history because we're so focused on waves of news and gossip. How are the issues that the candidates debate similar to the issues our country faces now? How are the issues and the rhetoric different?

  4. Does Vince's infatuation with Kelly represent more than just an attraction to a beautiful girl? How does it differ from his relationship with Beth? What is it the two women want? Does the woman that Vince winds up with in the end of the book tell us anything about the true nature of the changes he has made?

  5. A handful of fictionalized versions of historical figures appear in Citizen Vince, from John Gotti to Jimmy Carter. How do these "real people" affect your enjoyment of the novel? Do they lend it some credence or do they distract from the story? Why do you think the author chose to include these characters?

  6. The sense of place is as important to Citizen Vince as any of the characters. How do Spokane and New York differ in Vince's eyes? How do they differ in Ray's eyes? By the end of the book, why does Vince think of Spokane as his home?

  7. The novel doesn't make it clear which candidate Vince voted for. Who do you think he voted for? Does it matter in the framework of the novel?

  8. Vince only reads the beginning of novels, because he is so often let down by the endings. Novels, he thinks, can only end one of two ways, artfully (forced and manipulated) or truthfully (ambiguously or more often, badly). How do you think he would like the ending of Citizen Vince?

About the author

Jess Walter is the author of three novels, Citizen Vince, Land of the Blind and Over Tumbled Graves, a "New York Times" Notable book. He is also the author of the nonfiction book Every Knee Shall Bow (Ruby Ridge) and coauthor of Christopher Darden's bestselling memoir, In Contempt. Walter also writes essays, screenplays, short stories and poetry. He lives with his family in Spokane, Washington.

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Citizen Vince 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Could not put this one down. Delightfully quirky characters, thought- provoking ramblings, ingenious plot. Must read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
harstan More than 1 year ago
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
IJB More than 1 year ago
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 .
co_coyote on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I find one of the great pleasures in life is visiting other people's homes and exploringtheir bookshelves. There is no telling what is going to be found there, but it is almostguaranteed not to be anything I would normally find to read. (Rented beach homes aremy absolute favorites, mostly because of the trashy, sexy novels you find there. I wishI had that much fun when I went to the beach!) This is a book I found in Seattle. Funny,entertaining, and a great way to pass a couple of lonely days while my hosts were at work.
BrianaJae on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My third book by Jess, this one details the story of Vince Camden. Camden is a small-time crook, focusing mainly on stealing credit cards. He is a part of the witness protection program. The story takes place in the 80s and Vince works with detective Alan Dupree, who shows up in most of the other books by Jess. He will later serve as mentor and friend to Caroline, the detective in the last book. As the plot unfolds, the reader is sucked in as mafia hitmen show up on the quiet streets of Spokane.
mattp340 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Strange ending for a dark comedy. Almost didn't fit but in the end did.
angella.beshara on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is that unbeatable combination of smart and entertaining. I frequently found myself laughing out loud as well as being so struck by the writing that I was compelled to read passages to whomever happened to be around.
tmannix on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Literary. Funny. Set in the Pacific Northwest. Plot twists. Great characters. All the elements in place. What a fun book! Vince is a small-time crook who ends up in the witness protection program in Spokane WA on the cusp of the 1980 presidential election. And it turns out that what Vince misses most are his voting rights. But it looks like someone from his past is after him. So off we go. A memorable moment is when Vince brings a politician to a local dive on the eve of the election to try to garner votes. The crowd of two-bit criminals, prostitutes and losers is rapt and ready to throw their support behind the guy--but none of them is a registered voter. Oh...pretty amusing! I'd love to see a sequel!
swl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm humbled. This book is smarter than me, and yet it never went too far over my head. As a reader I rarely detect all the levels of meaning in a complex book, but in this case I felt that they were readily accessible, and I count that as a *major* plus.I have to admit that Vince was slow to develop for me...and in the first few chapters I was puzzling over how this won an Edgar simply because the crime seemed so beside the fact. Kind of like giving My Friend Leonard an Edgar. But by the end I would have been glad to invite vince into the house. To babysit the kids, even. Same with DuPree...even, possibly, with Charles. Give me this bunch of characters over any of the squeaky-clean genre heros any day.Mob stories don't generally do a whole lot for me, but in this case I thought it made an excellent structure to hang Vince's development on. The mob, after all, is a culture where virtue is either meaningless or twisted into an unrecognizable form - just like politics! Bringing in that Carter/Reagan election was brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, and I'm more than a little jealous that I didn't think of getting some investigative journalism experience before trying to write fiction. Carter's introspection near the end of the book was just about the saddest thing I've read lately. You know, I just had a thought; why don't we give the teenagers this treatment of that election rather than what they've read in the history books - it's probably closer to the bone and certainly more memorable.
guybrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
After a couple of gripping, character-driven crime novels in which he effectively de-romanticized serial killers, Walter should hit big with this charming noir about a small time NYC crook relocated to Spokane from the Big Apple after turning state¿s evidence against the mob. He can be found each morning before dawn at Donut Make You Happy, frying dough and setting up the till. No, it isn¿t a glamorous lifestyle, but it helps him unwind after a night of poker at Sam¿s Pit, and the dough sweetens his take from the stolen-credit-card ring and drug dealing. Free of the big-city criminal rat race, his deepest preoccupations now are counting how many dead people he knows¿more than living ones, it turns out¿and figuring out whether to vote for Carter or Reagan in next week¿s election. Life can¿t get much better, until a visit from a certain business associate of the Gottis raises the stakes, and Vince¿s bluff is called. Walter¿s dialogue is on a par with Elmore Leonard¿s, with flashes of humor and warmth that give this book a lighter feel than his prior novels¿ haunting explorations of evil, making this a fine introduction to a local treasure for fans of intelligent crime, psychological suspense, and gripping literary fiction. And you gotta love the setting (Steve Oliver¿s Dead Men was another recent Spokane noir). Writes Walter, ¿The city I write about is a grimy place. I loved Seattle when it was grimy because it seemed so true. And one thing I will say about Spokane, it¿s true.¿ Yes, I too miss the grime. Together with Portland¿s Lono Waiwaiole, Walter is putting Northwest noir on the map.
Smiley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wonderful Edgar award winning novel set mostly in 1980 Spokane WA. The characters breath life, the dialouge is snappy, and the sense of place is dead on. Good plot twist at the end and a novel about daily life and the meaning of politics that isn't cynical or self impressed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pleasantly surprised at the depth of characterization. Highly recommended.
Lance_Charnes More than 1 year ago
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.
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Maricaibo More than 1 year ago
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.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
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'.