Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: Citizen Vince

Jess Walter
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ – – –


This book started out with promise but ended up being a disappointment.

Part of my disappointment was in the ridiculously unrealistic naiveté of the gangsters. The other part was that I let myself get cool ideas about what might happen to the main character but the reality was not nearly as exciting as what I had imagined.

The main character, Marty Hagen, is a small-time hood from New York City. He had a successful racket going in credit-card theft until he got himself in debt to some bigger-time hoods. He then turned state’s evidence, was put into the witness protection program, took a new name (Vince Camden), and moved to Spokane, Washington, where he became a baker in a donut shop.

The story opens in Spokane when, unfortunately, Vince’s old life has caught up to him in the form of a hit man sent by his New York creditors to kill him after they discovered where he was living.

It’s a typical formula for a gangster book – an essentially well-meaning, nonviolent hood, in love with a golden-hearted hooker, trying to work towards a better, less felonious life.

What I liked about it was that it takes place in 1980, during the last few months leading up to the Carter/Reagan election. Vince, who had never cared for politics in the past, and who certainly has enough to deal with already with the hit man after him, gets more and more distracted by the race until it’s almost all he can think about. He gets his voter registration card, goes to hear politicians speak, and even befriends a guy running for local office. It gives him a new focus and new reasons for pursuing his dreams.

The politics give a colorful background and atmosphere to the otherwise run-of-the-mill plot. Vince hears Reagan’s now-legendary one-liners and reads headlines about the hostage negotiations with Iran and has to react and interpret them in real time, as we had to, without the benefit of hindsight. There are even a couple short entertaining sections written from Carter’s and Reagan’s points of view (judiciously informed by the twenty-five years that passed between then and when the book was written).

The problem is that the political background is just that – background. At first, I thought for sure that Vince was going to get more deeply involved in it and maybe even run for office himself. He shows a natural ability for it and makes contacts very quickly. I thought it would end up being a story about redemption through public service, or at the very least an ironic statement about the type of person it takes to succeed in politics. But it doesn’t. Vince never does anything besides vote, and even that, by the time he does it, seems a bit pointless and hollow. (Even for me, a rabid voter.)

The other problem with this book that I mentioned earlier is that the gangsters really do not act like gangsters. Get this: When Vince realizes that his creditors in New York have sent a hit man to kill him, he flies to New York, finagles his way into a poker game with them, reveals who he is, and tells them that he is in witness protection. He then tells them so convincingly that he bears them no ill will, that he will pay them back everything that he owes them, and that he has had an epiphany and that all he wants to do is to go back to Spokane and become a full-time donut baker, that they believe him, and they let him go back to Spokane, with only a relatively minor favor to do in return.

Come on. I watched The Sopranos. I know they had to kill Adriana once she got caught by the Feds, no matter what she promised or how much Christopher loved her. No way would these guys let a snitch leave New York alive.

Oh, yeah, one more thing: the book is written in present tense. I’m open to the idea that a book can be written in present tense and still be good, but I'm hard pressed to think of one.

1 comment:

Lord John Whorfin said...

Yes, I've never read any present-tense novels; even the short stories I read are annoying enough. Fight Club is the one people always talk about as being good, but I've never read it. And I guess parts of Jane Eyre are present-tense, too, now that I think about.

Of course, there's one genre where it's not annoying: Choose Your Own Adventure!, which I am current reliving with my son.

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