Book Review – Citizen Vince

Citizen Vince
Jess Walter
by Sam Hedrick, Guest Contributor

To vote or not to vote- is this a question you’ve considered recently? With the election season in high gear, the nature of voting in our society takes on more immediate meaning. There are those who choose not to vote, dismissively assuming their single vote doesn’t matter. There are those who cast their votes for third-party candidates with little or no chance of succeeding as a protest against the “powers that be.”  Finally there are others who are so passionate about the process that they become intimately involved; ringing doorbells, making phone calls until late in the evening to marshal support, even losing friends in heated debates over the perceived qualities, or lack thereof, in the newest crop of candidates.

Jefferson said, “Those who don’t vote get the government they deserve.” The question put forth by Jess Walters in Citizen Vince is this:  would voting be more important to you if your voting rights – or responsibility to vote – was taken from you?

Vince Camden had never voted. Never really thought about it much. Most of his life had been consumed living on the streets of New Jersey, selling stolen credit cards purchased from crooked mailmen and just getting by. That was before he turned State’s evidence on his wise guy bosses, and the Witness Protection program hooked him up with a job at the “Donut Make You Hungry” shop in Spokane.  Late night poker games with lowlifes and hookers, his credit card sales and selling pot hidden in jelly jars full of commemorative Mt. St. Helen’s volcanic ash, make for what passes as a decent living. Looking over his shoulder takes up most of the time he has left. He’s popular and successful in his dysfunctional little circle of friends and associates; a big city fish in a small town pond.

It’s 1980, right in the middle of the Reagan/Carter election cycle, when he runs into what might be the love of his life. Well, love’s a pretty strong word. Certainly a better prospect than his neurotic ex-working girl squeeze. Kelly is blonde, gorgeous, classy; a donut shop regular who comes for coffee and two chapters of her latest novel on her morning break. Finding an opening, Vince breaks the ice by engaging her about their shared literary interests. After her initial aloofness, he finds she’s interested in politics, something he’s never really considered seriously, much less cast a ballot. Elections are rigged, voting is for suckers. Out of politeness as much as anything, Kelly invites Vince to a rally to hear Michael Reagan give a stump speech for his dad while throwing some support to Kelly’s lawyer boyfriend, who happens to be running for the state legislature. A desire to keep on Kelly’s radar finds Vince in an extended philosophical political discussion with Kelly’s lawyer friend, which in turn sparks a dawning interest in the election process.

Meanwhile, Vince’s past isn’t satisfied to simply stay buried. Old scores settle hard, and there are debts that have come due. Is it possible to actually forge a new future without shaking the past? Are there any second acts in an American life? Vince finds himself in a position that calls for hard choices that will have long-term implications and consequences that he may not be able to live with. He finds himself on the fence trying to decide whether to continue his reign as the “one-eyed king in the land of the blind”; or crawl into the daylight, searching for the promise of a better life that provides a chance to stand upright as a citizen, casting a vote that might free him from the moral ambiguity of his past. Is it possible to escape your past and redeem yourself to the point you can face a brave new future?

I liked this book for a variety of reasons. First, I was intrigued by the characters. Neon lights, half-lit alleys, all-night poker games and sporting women make for a colorful backdrop. Setting it in the recent past made it familiar and somewhat nostalgic at the same time. By using his criminality and the specter of his past catching up with him, Walter allows you to lead yourself into territory that is almost cliche, but then throws in the twist. His interest in the election, the perception that, while the candidates might be flawed, the process is vital take it in a new direction. Vince is forced to look on the things he thought he understood with fresh eyes, finding beauty and truth where he least expected it, as well as the dark decay below what seemed pristine at first glance. There’s plenty of intrigue and suspense to drive the story and keep the reader turning pages, but the subtext left me thinking about much bigger issues. To quote Franklin, “Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”

Citizen Vince is available at the Rochester Public Library in traditional format and audio CD.  For more information on this book, visit the author’s website by following this link.

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