Citizen Vince by Jess Walter

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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Book Review: We Live In Water: Stories by Jess Walter

We Live in Water: StoriesWe Live in Water: Stories by Jess Walter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The thing about failure is that it’s never really over. Even after shuffling off this mortal coil, your failures reverberate like ripples in a pond, carry into lives left behind. Jess Walter, in his exquisite collection We Live In Water presents twelve men, Disciples of Failure, whose stories we read after they have made the worst choices, their lives already in a state of deliquescence.

Walter takes the snapshots we make every day in our mind’s eye and crafts the stories behind the moment. The men sitting with cardboard signs at freeway on-ramps: Anything Helps; the convicts picking up trash on the side of the highway: The Wolf and the Wild; the young people harassing you for a moment to talk about Greenpeace or Save the Children on your way into the grocery store: Helpless Little Things; the women behind those stripper cards handed out in seedy Las Vegas: The New Frontier. We wonder “Who are these people? How did they fall so low?” What we turn away from, what we are afraid to imagine, Walter follows through, coloring in the space of our imagination.

Children, young boys – are often the focus of Walter’s many touches of grace. These boys represent the potential of goodness, perhaps what these men were like before the world ground their faces in a mud puddle or before greed, anger or addiction became their motivating forces. In The Wolf and the Wild a little boy aches to curl in the lap of a convict, to read the same picture book over and over. There is no point in taking a chance on something new – the familiar is the best comfort a lost little boy can hope for. The son in Anything Helps rejects his father’s gift, but with such compassion you know you are seeing the act of a youth who is becoming a man before his time. In the collection’s title story, a single moment – the blue glow of an aquarium – releases a man’s childhood memory of his father’s disappearance.

Walter also takes us where no man has gone before: the future. In one of the most imaginative stories, Don’t Eat Cat, set in Seattle’s Fremont district just a few years hence, an epidemic of zombies is taking over the city. But within the futuristic oddity runs a current of reality. These zombies have a disease, a horrific effect of the addiction to an anti-depressant. Owen, who loses his cool in a Starbucks after a zombie messes up his order, points out “But is this the Apocalypse? Fuck you. It’s always the Apocalypse. The world hasn’t gone to shit. The world is shit. All I’d asked was that is be better managed.” Yep. Get that.

Walter wields a deft hand with black comedy. Virgo is devious, written in first-person by a stalker who plots revenge on his ex-girlfriend by sabotaging her daily horoscope. The New Frontier, has the making of a bromance buddy caper: two guys travel to Las Vegas to save the sister of one her life as a hooker in Las Vegas. The brother is a goob. His buddy, who recounts their mission, is, well…

Jess Walter closes with a thirteenth piece. Less a story than an ode, an explanation, a litany, Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington is a bullet-point list of the failures of a tired-but-trying city and the reasons why Walter chooses to remain.

I don’t mean to make the short stories seem like complete downers. There are no happy endings here; in many cases there are no endings – these are moments, suspended in the time it takes to read the few pages you get. But Walter has this way of imbuing his stories with a gentle caress of humanity and not a little humor that saves his characters’ voices from becoming maudlin. At the same time, we are spared the soft focus of sentimentality because the edges are raw with grief or pointed with violence. I applaud him for giving the Pacific Northwest a dimension of character that overrides the clichéd image of rugged landscapes and frontier spirits.

After reading this collection, it’s a done deal: in my book, Jess Walter is one of the greatest of contemporary American fiction writers.

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Book Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Beautiful RuinsBeautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got a table at the Rainbow Room
I told my wife I’d be home soon
Big ships are approaching the docks
I got my hi-fi boom box
Mashed potatoes in cellophane
I see my life going down the drain
Hold me baby and don’t let go
Pretty girls help to soften the blow
Palm trees; the flat broke disease
And LA has got me on my knees
I am the bluest of blues
Every day a different way to lose
The Go Getter
I’ll be the Go Getter
That’s my plan
That’s who I am
The Go Getter
Yeah the Go Getter

The Go Getter The Black Keys

I have a complicated relationship with social satire. I give the vulgar and violent (thinking here of South Park and Chuck Palahniuk) a wide berth –– but the bizarre sensibilities of Monty Python, the gentle humor of Garrison Keillor or the politician-skewering tirades of Stewart and Colbert tickle me. I have the hardest time appreciating modern literary satire. When I commit to spending a few days with a book, I want story. Good, old-fashioned, beginning-middle-end story, not cynical commentary wrapped in wit.

Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins is the marriage of gentle social satire with old-fashioned story-telling; a marriage that gives life to a delightfully original and brave novel. Like any skilled satirist, Walter creates a world that is slightly off-kilter – not bizarre, not unbelievable- just a sense that something, somehow is slightly amiss. The reader is always a bit wobbly – guaranteeing she will take nothing for granted in the narrative.

The title Beautiful Ruins refers to one of novel’s central themes: the inevitable crumbling of youth, of promise, of dreams. There are so many beautiful ruins in this story, which takes place in 1962 Italy and present-day Hollywood, with a bit of contemporary Spokane and Edinburgh and 1970’s Seattle tossed in, not to forget a slight detour to the Sierra Nevada mountains in the 1850’s.

Among the ruins we find the village of Porto Vergogna and the dreams of its most ambitious resident, hotel owner Pasquale Tursi; the actress Dee Moray, who comes to Porto Vergogna in 1962 to convalesce; Alvis Bender, a war veteran turned writer who can’t write past his first chapter; the legendary movie producer Michael Deane, who has made a beautiful ruin of his face with Botox and plastic surgery; Deane’s assistant Claire Silver, whose love life and career represent everything she hates about sell-out, superficial Los Angeles; former Seattle grunge rocker Pat Bender, a mid-life shamble of addiction and self-loathing; and aspiring screenwriter Shane Wheeler, who delivers one of the book’s most surprising chapters, a pitch for a movie about that great ruin of the American frontier spirit: the doomed Donner party.

That’s a heckuva lot of characters (and there are more, far more!) and this is a heckuva lot of story. Yet it works, in all its madcap and poignant twists, thanks to Walter’s crisp writing and efficient plotting. You fall in love with these characters – Walter gives them such soul, your heart is constantly tugged. This is a book you could read in the space of a Sunday, not because it’s simple, but because you simply don’t want to put it down. I waver and withhold a fifth star because the Hollywood scenes feel a bit thin and fantastical to me – there’s that satire twitch of mine – and I couldn’t quite connect with Claire, who holds a pivotal role, until she, well, I don’t want to spoil things.

If you don’t care for Hollywood endings, you might feel cheated by Walter’s wrap-up of his intertwined story lines. Me? I’m a sucker for spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of satire go down.

Richard Burton makes a brilliantly comic cameo; it is in fact this famous actor for whom the book is titled, after Louis Menard’s piece in The New Yorker: “[Dick] Cavett’s four great interviews with Richard Burton were done in 1980….Burton, fifty-four at the time, and already a beautiful ruin, was mesmerizing.”

Jess Walter uses his characters and their exploits to poke firmly but not cruelly at the bubbles of pop culture, our adoration of celebrity and beauty and the fickle nature of the film and publishing industries. Not to mention the fickle and fleeting nature of love. He shows the folly of great expectations and the beautiful ruins of unfulfilled hopes and dreams. It is a charming literary mosaic.
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