Citizen VinceCitizen Vince by Jess Walter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Vince Camden and I had our political awakenings at the same time: Autumn, 1980. Jimmy and Ronny, the embassy hostages, Afghanistan, Iran—Iraq War, Abscam, inflation. Not too mention John Lennon, Mt. St. Helen’s, Rubik’s cube, the Moscow Olympics, Bjorg and McEnroe, Sony Walkman. Bruce, Billy, Pat, Blondie, The Police, Dire Straits, ska, New Wave. Come to think of it: 1980? Monumental.

The thing about my intellectual awakening vs. Vince Camden’s: I turned 11 a couple of months before the Gipper was elected. Vince? Vince is in his 30s. I was navigating long division. Vince, the federal witness protection program.

I cried the night of my oldest brother’s high school graduation in June, 1980. Here I was, 10 going on 11, and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Vince Camden doesn’t strike me as the crying type, but I bet he fretted too, when he left behind his life as Marty Hagen–a two-bit hustler in New York City– to become Vince Camden in Spokane. Spokane! About as far as you can get from New York City without entering Canadian airspace, geographically and culturally.

But unlike my 10-year-old self who had to make her own way, the Feds not only gave Vince a new home and identity, they subsidized his job training. Vince did something that I once considered and probably should have followed through with, given my current zero-earning state: he completed a baking and pastry program at the community college. Now Vince bakes crullers, fritters, cinnamon rolls, maple bars, and jelly-filled delights at Donut Make You Hungry. He’s also running a credit card scam with his mailman and Lenny, a local pawn shop owner. You can take the boy out of a life of crime, but can you take the criminal out of the boy?

While Vince is awakening to the future—the book is staged during the week leading up to the 1980 election—his past is catching up to him. The appearance of Ray Sticks, a Philly hitman moonlighting for the New York mob, sends Vince scurrying back to New York to make amends to the guy he stiffed (that guy being John Gotti—oops) See, Vince realizes he really likes his new life. He’s getting into this being a part of a community thing. There’s a sweet prostitute who could use his help raising her son, there’s a local politician and Vietnam vet who could use Vince’s savvy with Spokane’s underground to win new voters. And who woulda thunk it, but Vince is a great baker. He’s got dreams about opening a restaurant, owning a home, having a wife and kid…

It’s just that Vince’s got a hit on him. Complicates his future prospects. Or rather, his prospect for a future. And then there’s the matter of which yahoo to vote for, come Tuesday.

A little bit Elmore Leonard, a little bit Philip Roth, a little bit Nick Hornby, but completely, wonderfully Jess Walter. As dark as he can wring it, Walter just can’t hide a big heart (maybe a little Frank Capra, too?). It’s impossible not to cheer for Vince, even when he’s stealing your credit cards.

But you know what really makes Vince want to follow the straight and narrow? He receives his very first voter registration card. And on his way to face the music, Vince insists that he be allowed to vote. Which he does. But for whom? Carter? Reagan? Anderson? Hmmm…I’m not telling.

This is some of America’s best contemporary storytelling. Read it and weep. Giggle a little, too. Oh, and don’t forget to vote.

There is what you believe and there is what you want and these things are fine. But they’re just ideas, in the end. History, like any single life, is made up of actions. At some point, the thinking and believing and deciding fall away and all that’s left is the doing.

~Vince Camden

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