Jess Walter never stops surprising. He followed two excellent nonfiction works --- EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW and IN CONTEMPT --- with OVER TUMBLED GRAVES and LAND OF THE BLIND. CITIZEN VINCE, his latest novel, mixes a strong, present tense narrative with historical events to present a dark, restless study of lives gone awry.
CITIZEN VINCE isn't a novel that readily fits into a particular genre classification. There are elements that certainly will appeal to readers of crime fiction, but it's also a character study, one that explores the concepts of second chances, redemption, and even penance against the backdrop of the week leading up to the 1980 Presidential election between incumbent Jimmy Carter and former California Governor Ronald Reagan.
The storyline is fairly straightforward. Vince Camden is a two-bit thief from New York who has been witness-relocated to Spokane, Washington, where he works a "public job," if you will, running a donut shop. Camden is supplementing his income playing poker in the early morning hours and being the conduit for a credit card scam. He has settled into a reasonably quiet, secure life that includes --- for the first time in his adult life --- the chance to vote for president.
Camden has no idea how fragile his situation is until a mysterious killer appears in Spokane, looking to take over his credit card operation and wipe him out permanently. As if this wasn't enough, Camden finds himself embroiled in the life of a local politician and emotionally torn between a prostitute and a legal secretary. Camden believes that the source behind his imminent demise is back in what he refers to as "The World" --- New York. He hopes that by returning to New York he can square the reasons that caused him to leave there to begin with and hopefully call off the hit. A fateful high stakes poker game gives him the opportunity to obtain forgiveness --- and destruction, depending on how things fall.
Walter's prior forays into documentary works hold him in good stead here, as he uses a real-world dilemma --- Camden spends a lot of time agonizing over whether to vote for Carter or Reagan --- to provide a backdrop to the narrative. Toss a couple of real-world figures as brief but necessary participants into the story, infuse a street-level view of the action into the mix, and you have a novel that is impossible to put down even as you sense that the only way it can end is badly. Whether that is true or not, however, may depend on your point of view.
Jess Walter has developed a reputation for delivering quality fiction that is unpredictable but riveting. CITIZEN VINCE, from first page to last, lives up to that high standard and never disappoints.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 27, 2010