The Edgar Awards Revisited: Citizen Vince by Jess Walter (Best Novel, 2006)
In the pantheon of main characters, memorable and unique, Vince Camden sits up there with Bosch and Reacher and Millhone and Holmes.
Once I read a review in the New York Times about a book called Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, a book that turned out to be one of my favorite books ever. And the reviewer, I don’t remember who, was clearly apprehensive about writing it. The reviewer said something like: I’m worried, writing this, that I will not have to adequate ability to convey to you how good this is.
That is exactly how I feel now with Citizen Vince.
From the noir level of violence and disdain for human life, to the lovely parable of the crows (just read it), or musing about what a young Philip Roth would do—what could be almost an old fashioned cat-and-mouse gangster chase turns into a crazy literary tour de force. Irresistible, and hilarious, and intelligent, and tough-provoking.
You want plot? Okay. A small-time criminal newly-named Vince Camden is making a new life in Spokane, working at the local Donut Make You Happy. It’s all coffee and good books and check-ins with the feds and possibilities for happiness—until a face from his East Coast past shows up. When things go bad, as they do in noir, Vince goes on the run. Sort of.
A weirdly fluid point of view makes Citizen Vince feel even more special, even edgy. And if you wonder—is Walter being cavalier about the rules of writing? Please. He knows what he’s doing, and brilliantly. And even alludes to it in dialogue.
“He’s seen him.”
“He tell you that?”
“No.” Dupree shrugs. “But he talked about him in present tense. Isn’t that weird? If you hadn’t seen someone in three years would you talk about them and present tense?”
“Right, right.” Charles says. He looks at DeVries’s building, and then back. “What the fuck is present tense?”
I don’t know, is this a mystery? The Edgar for Best Novel is usually a mystery, that’s the point, of course, but if this is or if this isn’t, I don’t care. It’s terrific. I mean there are murders and deaths, but there’s no mystery about who done it. And there’s crime, but we know who done that, too. Mostly. And who could have the nerve to write a book where the protagonist’s driving goal, sort of, is to vote in the Reagan-Carter election?
There’s also no mystery about the writing skill. This is an unconventionally seamless mix of gorgeous and spare. It’ll go all erudite and philosophical—then hit you with dialogue that sounds like Robert B. Parker talking to John Wayne.
“Be careful of this guy John. He ain’t right. Ever since his kid got killed—“ He doesn’t finish the thought.
“How old was his kid?”
Pete is picking at the antipasto plate. “Twelve.”
“Jesus. And the guy who hit his kid? What happened to him?”
Pete picks an olive from the antipasto plate. Stares at it, shows Vince, then drops it into his water glass. They watch it sink to the bottom of the East River.
And his descriptions—seething with raw voice and a staggering depth of understanding.
The place works like a drain for the city; every morning when the bars close, the drunks and hookers and lawyers and johns and addicts and thieves and cops and card players—as old Sam used to say, “Everygodambody “–swirls around the streets and ends up here. It’s why the cops don’t sweat the gambling and undercounter booze. It’s just nice to know that at 3 AM, everyone will be gathered in one place, like the suspects in a seamy British drawing room.
Can I tell you all the parts I loved? No, because it would be the whole book. For instance, Vince reads now, but only the beginnings of books. As he says:
He’s even begun to think of this as a more effective approach, to sample only the beginnings of things. After all, a book and only and one of two ways: truthfully or artfully. If it ends artfully, then it never feels quite right.… If it ends truthfully then the story ends badly, in death. It’s the reason most theories and religions and economic systems break down before you get too far into them– and the reason Buddhism and the Beach Boys make sense to teenagers, because they’re too young to know what life really is: a frantic struggle that always ends the same way. The only thing that varies is the beginning and the middle. Life always ends badly. If you’ve seen someone die, you don’t need to read to the end of some book to learn that.
That’s what this book does throughout, gives a careful balancing of humor, human nature and the life-and-death decisions we make and why and then—boom—our fears and dreams. How can a scene where someone votes for president make you laugh and cry at the same time? How can one line of character description work on so many levels?
Len Huggins’ face is a conference of bad ideas: baby corn teeth, thin lips, broken nose, pocked cheeks, and two bushy black capital L sideburns (For Len, man! Get it? L? Len?)
But in the pantheon of main characters, memorable and unique, Vince Camden sits up there with Bosch and Reacher and Millhone and Holmes. He’s a flat out criminal—not too bad a criminal, I feel as if I need to reassure you—but one who will haunt you as long as you care about writing, and reading, and books that convey every emotion and connection we hope to understand.
It’s edgy and risky and will pull the rug out from under you in ways you can’t imagine. Ways you’ve never seen before and will never see again.
And the ending—no spoilers of course—is so scary, and sad, and beautiful. And we love Vince so much, but we’re terrified to turn the page because we’re not quite sure we want to know.
It’s different to read a book to review that it is to just read it. And this time, there were moments where I wished—okay, I love this assignment, but still—where I wished I could simply read Citizen Vince without deciding what to say about it. I suppose that’s the highest compliment—that the reader’s reaction is to say, “Leave me alone, I’m reading.”
Notes from the 2006 Edgar Awards:
- The other nominees for Best Novel were Drama City by George Pelacanos, Red Leaves by Thomas H. Cook, The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly, and Vanish by Tess Gerritsen.
- Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana won Best Motion Picture.
- Stuart M. Kaminsky hosted the awards as The Grand Master.
- The Mary Higgins Clark Award was given to Dark Angel by Karen Harper.
- Officer Down by Theresa Schwegel won Best First Novel, ousting Die A Little by Megan Abbott, Hide Your Eyes by Alison Gaylin, Immoral by Brian Freeman, and Run the Risk by Scott Frost.
We’ll see everyone back here next week as author Ausma Zehanat Khan stops by to review The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin, the 2007 Edgar Award winner of Best Novel. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.