Jess Walter is a writer you may not have heard of. He is the author of Over Tumbled Graves, a book I read a few years back and enjoyed. His latest is Citizen Vince out from Regan Books, a division of Harper-Collins. Judith Regan’s imprint is not known for crime fiction, but this novel alone could alter the perception that her books are torn exclusively from the frothy confines of Page Six.
Citizen Vince tells the story of Vince Camden, a demi-wise guy who finds himself exiled to Spokane, Washington in the autumn of 1980. Carter and Reagan are running for president against the backdrop of the Iran hostage crisis; mortgage rates are hovering at twenty percent. God knows what the vig on a Jets game is, but Paul Volker as Fed chairman is wringing inflation out of the economy with the gusto of a Survivor candidate eating worms. Spokane is depicted as a dreary town with the flat aspect associated with long haul trucking, motel architecture, and the middle of nowhere consensus that leaving town is always a good idea.
Vince enjoys the place, setting up a credit card theft operation while working as a donut maker. His presence in the witness protection program is the result of a miscalculation by prosecutors eager to believe that Vince is a stepping-stone to the top of the mob hierarchy. When a serious made guy named Ray Sticks arrives in town, Vince becomes a homicide suspect and bolts for the familiar territory of the Big Apple.
What sets the novel apart is Vince. He is appealing and interesting from the first page, a man of La Mancha with a good heart, poor judgment, and a lonely skill set he employs to survive. The story divides roughly into thirds, Spokane, New York, Spokane again, with a cop named Dupree taking some ink as a point of view character. All of the elements blend together for the climax and resolution, but Vince is the glue. When Vince, a convicted felon at age eighteen, exercises his right to vote for the first time, it strikes the prefect note in setting up the ending.
Jess Walter has yet to achieve a lot of fame as a novelist; that will change. His style is low-key, but the prose always rises to the occasion without drawing attention to the author. This light touch is antithetical to the bloated stylists of modern thrillers, yet the result is far more engaging, convincing, and ultimately enjoyable than the work of many of his competitors. Walters comes in, takes the ball, strikes out the side, and disappears into the dugout. Time for a curtain call.