Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Citizen Vince by Jess Walter

Citizen Vince
by Jess Walter

“The people are funny... they live in this perfect place, but it’s all they know, so they all assume it’s gotta be better somewhere else.”

Even if I did not live near the same city as Jess Walter, even if I’d never heard of this book, the two pages of blurbs alone would have compelled me to pick it up. Two of my favorite writers, Nick Hornby and Sarah Vowell, sing its praises, but perhaps the Washington Post Book World sums up the novel best: “You just have to read it.”

After you read this review, get thee to your preferred bookseller and drop the fifteen bucks. I mean it. Then buy one for a friend. You know you were stuck on a present for them anyway. Why not make it a fantastic story full of humor, heartbreak, and redemption?

Shuffled off to Spokane, Washington, as part of the Witness Protection Program, Vince Camden spends his mornings working at a donut shop and his nights selling stolen credit cards to his poker buddies. It’s 1980 — just days before the presidential election, and Vince can’t quite shake the not-so-paranoid feeling that someone from his old life is after him.

Even from the perspective of an outsider, Walter writes with great affection for his home city, but does not shy away from pointing out Spokane’s quirks. As someone who lives in the area, the ways in which the city still has not changed made me laugh:

“In this town, five guys drive to a tavern in five cars, have a beer, then get in their five cars and drive three blocks to the next tavern. It’s not just wasteful. It’s uncivilized.”

And while we may not still have a zoo (unless you count the Cat Tales sanctuary north of town), I couldn’t agree more with the line, “Our lousy zoo is emblematic of a city and a region afraid to succeed.” Swap out the zoo with any of the following — bus system, light rail, North-South freeway, year-round farmer’s market — and that about describes the glacial pace Spokane has at times when it comes to public improvement. Yes, the past five years have had leaps forward in food, culture and the occasional bike lane painted, but the hesitancy lingers.

Still, this is not a novel about Spokane’s progress, and the political portions are merely a subplot. At its core, Citizen Vince is a story about a man trying to find his place in a new life, wondering what remains of himself after all that has changed. Walter’s writing is some of the best out there, filled with the sort of passages that make me feel like a hack, but also wanting to get to work.

“Jesus, it’d be nice if there were someplace to dump all those things that you’ve felt and seen, like taking the film out of a camera. That’s why people write books and stories, no doubt, to leave some impression behind, to share a sense of the beauty and pain.”

I’m not the type to well up over the books I read, but damn — That’s it. We write to leave our fingerprints on the world and to pay tribute to all that came before. Like Vince, we’re searching for answers, community, and maybe, a dash of immortality.

Book # 5/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

See also my review of the recent Jess Walter/Sherman Alexie reading at Auntie's Bookstore, over at SPOKE(a)N(e) Magazine.

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