Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Citizen Vince: Leaving "The Life"?

Given the state of the national political discourse these days, I wonder if Jess Walter regrets using politics as a sort of metaphor for a normal life, as he does in his fantastic 2006 novel, Citizen Vince. It's kind of amusing to consider — perhaps even ironic — that politics and normal could be even remotely related. But anyway, don't worry — this isn't a political novel at all.

Walter uses the days prior to the Reagan vs. Carter election in 1980 as the setting for his tale about a criminal named Vince, who may or may not be trying to go straight and lead that normal life. See, Vince is in the witness protection program in Spokane, Washington. He becomes fascinated with the way the two candidates discuss the Iran hostage situation, and realizes that now, even though he is a convicted felon, because he has a new identity, he can vote. But he's never considered politics and has no idea who to vote for. Things as "mundane" as who leads the free world had never been important to him before.

But can Vince ever really leave "the life"? Indeed, as we first see Vince, waking up to go to his job as a donut maker (no, that's not a euphemism — he literally works in a donut shop) and trying to count how many dead people he's known, we already see that he's involved in a credit card scam; the same thing he was doing when he got busted back in New York and had to bail himself out by testifying against some nasty gangsters.

When a hitman shows up in Spokane, Vince assumes that his past has collided with his present, and tries to figure out how to fix things so he won't have to constantly be looking over his shoulder.

Walter is really sharp here — writing dialogue for gangsters and wise guys that you could drop right into movies like Good Fellas. John Gotti even makes an appearances here. And some of the side stories and minor details — like a guy who loses $2,000 on a football bet because his team misses an extra point — raise the "realness" of the novel as a whole; because, as we learned from Reservoir Dogs, which has nothing on Citizen Vince in terms of sharp dialogue, it's the details that sell a story, right? Walter's also is good at subtly poking fun at some of the absurdities of politics — like a guy who's running for the state assembly whose platform consists solely of revamping the city's zoo.

Citizen Vince is Walter's third novel, and by most accounts, is the best of his early "crime" novels. This is the third Walter novel I've read (after The Zero, and The Financial Lives of the Poets), and I've really enjoyed all three of them — in very different ways. This is highly recommended if you're into the gritty crime novel. Or, if you just like really good writing.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read anything by Jess Walter, yet, but I've been making a list. This one is definitely going on it.