Aldrin's Reviews > Citizen Vince

Citizen Vince by Jess Walter
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's review
Jan 17, 2010

really liked it
Read in October, 2009 — I own a copy

After having a rough time last night, I’d still be lying in the supine position right now, probably with my mouth open and certainly with my eyes closed, dreaming about having an audience with Jonathan Ive and/or Dieter Rams while enjoying a nice cone of rocky road ice cream, if it weren’t for these pesky early-morning election campaigners making the rounds in our area. I understand that they have just less than 24 hours to campaign and they need to make the best of what’s left of their time, but the truth is they’ve been at it since the beginning of the campaign period, showing their utter disregard for the human ear’s pain threshold with their campaign jingles blasting through walls at decibel levels so high you’d think Jonathan Safran Foer was thinking of them when he came up with the title for his sophomore novel.

So here I am. Awake. In an hour or two I’ll be boarding a bus to my hometown up north, where for only the second time I shall be having the cuticle of my index finger overlaid with purple ink after casting my votes in the national, provincial, and municipal elections come Monday. The commute and the minor events that lead to it, physically demanding and mentally exhausting all, are bound to take more than five hours, a window of time that on an ordinary weekend I’d rather be caught spending on the latest blockbuster release and on coffee talk with friends while soaking up on mall-wide Wi-Fi. But this weekend is no ordinary weekend. It’s the weekend of the elections. And enduring at least five hours inside a crowded bus, which may or may not show the latest blockbuster release on pirated DVD, is the least of my worries. My ill-advised home stretch indecision on the matter of which person to vote for head of state, now that’s what I should be worried about.

Vince Camden, the protagonist of Jess Walter’s superbly written, darkly humorous, Coen Brothers-esque noir crime novel, "Citizen Vince," has a similar problem, despite (or maybe because of) the unusual circumstances that he finds himself in and out of. Vince is a convicted felon who was released from prison following the approval of his participation in a witness protection program on account of his knowledge of valuable police information. Along with a new lease in life, he was given his right to vote, as proven by his very own voter’s ID that came in the mail soon after he arrived in his new residence in the hemiboreal city of Spokane, Washington.

Having been incarcerated for the most part of his adult years, Vince is set to vote for the first time in his life and is determined to make the right choice, even as he begins to commit clandestine crimes of felony while on probation. Bad habits really are hard to break. Most nights, after his shift as the chief baker of Donut Make You Hungry, he is respectively seen and not seen in Sam’s Pit, gambling with drunks, lawbreakers, and prostitutes, and in a local establishment, counterfeiting credit cards. But in the moments when he is not deliberately trying to get himself back in trouble, he rides a persistent wave of deep thought and optimism that is quite surprising for an ex-convict (and even for a regular person). During a conversation with a local candidate he becomes friends with, Vince says that voting is “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 fucking miracle.” This from a criminal doughnut-maker who is about to redeem himself not only in his efforts of helping his newfound love, Beth, a hooker who aims to take a different career path by striving to earn a license in real estate, but also in his choice between Carter and Reagan in the 1980 US elections.

The year is 2010, three decades after Vince Camden made his choice, which remained his well-guarded secret even at the novel’s close, and here I am. Awake. In hindsight, I woke up to be reminded of the story I read six months ago about an ex-felon who wanted to make a difference, and realized that outside of their propaganda those extremely loud and incredibly close campaign jingles served as a friendly wake-up call, telling me that I should make this potentially lazy and pointless Saturday, just two days away from the big day, anything but. Or I might as well be a prisoner in a state that excludes inmates from voting. Or worse, a person who doesn’t believe in miracles—even tiny fucking ones.
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