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.
- Edgar Allan Poe Award best novel, 2005
- Finalist ITW Thriller Award
"Wonderfully written ... Vince Camden is hard to forget." -- LOS ANGELES TIMES
"You have to read it ... Utterly inventive in tone and plot." -- WASHINGTON POST
"Refreshing ... For readers who appreciate wry precision and expert timing." -- NEW YORK TIMES
"Fresh and different--a gritty story of betrayal, an extended riff on life, death, and politics. Walter is a literary talent writ large." -- BOSTON GLOBE
"It's been a long time since I've read a book as compulsively, indeed greedily, as I read Citizen Vince. Here are characters who seem to live of their own volition, who talk out of a terrible inner need to make themselves known and understood, who reveal not just themselves but the yearning heart of our great flawed democracy." -- RICHARD RUSSO
"Citizen Vince is fast, tough, thoughtful and funny ... In a couple of bravura passages, Walter leaves his gangsters to fend for themselves while he enters the minds of the candidates themselves. I loved this novel ... it seemed to know that what I needed was pace, warmth, humor, and an artfully disguised attempt to write about a world bigger than the one its characters live in." -- NICK HORNBY (in THE BELIEVER)
"Jess Walter's "Citizen Vince" is the sharp and insightful tale of a mobster who arrives in Spokane, Wash., seeking a new life at the beginning of the Reagan era. Crafted with both compassion and comedy, this novel beautifully captures that essential and elusive American yearning for second chances and fresh starts." DEAN BAKOPOULOS (in The Milwaukee Sentinal)
"I just read Jess Walter's swell thriller 'Citizen Vince,' the tale of a guy in the witness protection program with a subplot involving Election Day in 1980, and I realized how much, despite all logic, I'm itching to vote." -- SARA VOWELL (in The New York Times)
"Citizen Vince is the book of 2005 for me. I flat-out adore it. The dialogue is marvelous, and the characters-man, they sing. It's a stunning, moving piece of work." -- KEN BRUEN
"(An) immensely entertaining crime thriller and wry social commentary."-- CHICAGO TRIBUNE
"Rich in robust characters ad wry dialogue, with agile prose, a big heart and a finely tuned plot."-- SEATTLE TIMES
"The dialogue is amazingly good ... profane, hilarious and strangely thought-provoking ... a great book for a summer-reading list."--ARIZONA REPUBLIC
"With a multitude of scruffy, likable characters and a hopping plot, the story moves along, at turns gritty, funny, poignant and, despite some bloody crimes, surprisingly charming."-- OREGONIAN
"The magic – and, yes, that's the correct word – of "Citizen Vince" comes from the character of the protagonist and the setting he finds himself in."--SPOKESMAN-REVIEW
"This terrific book, a small-town "Mean Streets," is smart, funny, dark and moving, and Walter is clearly a writer to watch."--ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
"Admirably unpredictable ... a story full of wonderful small surprises. Dispassionate and compassionate by turns, and always engrossing. Walter's best by far."-- KIRKUS REVIEWS (starred review)
"This tale of unlikely redemption works because of Walter's virtuoso command of character and dialogue--along with a wicked second-act twist ... with its Capara-like spirit, it serves as a surprisingly satisfying antidote to the avalanche of cynical chatter emanating from this year's political campaigns and commentators."--BOOKLIST
"What makes Walter's third novel so enjoyable is Vince, a flawed but sympathetic character trying to find redemption."--LIBRARY JOURNAL
TORONTO STAR: Wonderfully accomplished ... astonishing resonance ... an elegant, funny novel
LONDON TELEGRAPH: A splendidly entertaining, thoughtful book ... Jess Walter continues to impress.
LONDON INDEPENDENT: A tasty novel. Funny, sad, mad, scary.
MANCHESTER CITY LIFE: Ambitious ... a nerve-tingling narrative.
WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN: Real literature ... just brilliant.
COURIER MAIL: An unlikely tale of redemption of there ever was one.
CALCUTTA TELEGRAPH: Deadpan profundity.
AUSTRALIAN WAY: Humorous plot twists, layers of duplicity to keep the reader guessing and, in Vince the born-again donut maker, a classic likeable rogue.
WASHINGTON POST, APRIL 10, 2005
Reviewed by Maureen Corrigan
By Jess Walter.
Imagine a moving and inspirational book about the right to vote in America. Then imagine, if you possibly can, that the book in question is neither a flag-festooned picture book nor a history of the civil rights movement but rather a darkly comic crime novel.
Naaw, you can't imagine it; you just have to read it.
Citizen Vince is the third novel by Jess Walter, an investigative journalist whose other writing credits include co-authoring In Contempt, a bestselling memoir by Christopher Darden, a member of the O.J. Simpson prosecution team. Perhaps the proximity to that circus gave Walter his skewed sensibility when it comes to ruminating on matters of conscience. Whatever its sources, Citizen Vince is utterly inventive in tone and plot. Maybe if Aaron Copland had written the score for a film noir starring the Marx Brothers there would be some prototype for Walter's fusion fiction, but he didn't and there isn't. And the best thing about Citizen Vince is that it isn't one of those antic-for-the-sake-of-being-offbeat literary efforts; instead, this is a compelling novel whose motivating questions are deadly earnest: What are the responsibilities of citizenship? How real is the promise of meritocracy? Is America the land of second acts, or are we all, as F. Scott Fitzgerald decided at the end of The Great Gatsby, "like boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past"?
Fitzgerald constructed a pretty good fictional situation in Gatsby upon which to hang that final verdict about American social mobility, but Walter arguably concocts an even better one: The year is 1980, and the novel's hero, Vince Camden, has been given a chance at reinvention courtesy of a witness-protection program. We first become acquainted with Vince as the 36-year-old death-obsessed manager of a donut shop called "Donut Make You Hungry" in Spokane, Wash. Even early on, however, there are strong indications that there's more to the likable Vince than powdered sugar and sprinkles. He seems to be involved in some kind of credit-card scam, and he likes to hang out at an after-hours barbecue joint called Sam's Pit, frequented by the usual lowlife mélange of pimps, drunks and hookers. And then there's that sadistic hit man who's recently arrived in town, out to whack Vince. Things just don't add up.
Turns out that Vince is a mobbed-up New Yorker who was whisked out west courtesy of the feds three years ago in exchange for some crucial information. As his current credit-card shenanigans demonstrate, Vince's sojourns inside the prison system haven't scared him straight; neither has he been redeemed by the love of a sort-of-good woman, a waif named Beth who's one of the hookers at Sam's. (Beth is making a lame effort to leave the life by earning her real estate license.) Then, out of the blue, Vince receives his voter's registration card in the mail. A convicted felon since the age of 18, Vince has never been allowed to vote; under his alias, however, his slate has been wiped clean, and he's eligible to vote in his first election -- the contest between President Carter and Ronald Reagan. As Election Day nears, Vince becomes swept up in the agonies of informed decision-making. Here's how he explains his newfound civic fixations to himself:
"It's like this: You're out there living your own life, and then, every four years, they give you a say -- a tiny say in how this moment should proceed . . . a small say in which incremental direction we will go, and sure, it's a cynical process: reactive, reductive, misguided -- but goddamn it, if every four years it does nothing more than make you stop and realize that you're part of something bigger, then maybe every time it's a tiny [expletive] miracle."
Thus ensues a simultaneously tense and screwball suspense story: As Vince dodges the hit man as well as local police (that's another subplot altogether) and even flies cross-country to New York City to try to reason with the mob kingpin who has put the contract out on him, he engages almost everyone he meets in political debate. For instance, he instigates a salty conversation around the table at an all-night Mafia card game in New York's Mott Street about why Carter can't win a second term, and the repartee rivals the sharpest examples featured on "The Sopranos." Two stream-of-consciousness riffs at the center of the novel even take readers into the minds, respectively tortured and serene, of Carter and Reagan. The excruciatingly breathless climax of this novel pits the claims of civic responsibility against those of self-preservation as Vince insists on exercising his voting rights in the face of almost certain oblivion. In its coarse, violent and very funny way, Citizen Vince is an affecting testament to American faith in the common man as well as to the resilient possibilities of the crime novel. •
Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches literature at Georgetown