Citizen Vince by Jess Walter. Harper Perennial, 2008. 9780061577659.
Sarah: So when you first talked about Book Wows, you pitched the idea to me as we grab a book from our collection and talk about why we love it. So this is the first book I thought about, but I didn’t want to start out with it. It’s almost too much for me to talk about. The book is Citizen Vince by Jess Walter.
S: It’s the first or second book by him that I read.
G: He was a journalist somewhere in Washington state, I think — he’s somewhat local, right?
S: He still lives in Spokane.
G: He used to work with my friend Jonathan. I was at a party at Jonathan’s house and he and another reporter talked about how Jess Walter had escaped journalism much like librarians talk about those who escape the library.
S: Walter and Sherman Alexie do this podcast together, it went on hiatus while Alexie was ill, but it’s rumored that it’s coming back. It’s so good: two really smart guys who are incredibly good writers interviewing other writers they like. It is the best way to get to know authors that you need to read.
G: So tell me about this book. Is it a mystery?
S: It won the Edgar for best novel. Because I loved it so much I feel like I have to ration the rest of Jess Walter’s books — I don’t want to be at a point where I’m out of them.
G: There aren’t many, he writes kind of slowly I think…?
S: Yeah, and they’re totally worth the wait, I’m sure.
G: Did you read Beautiful Ruins?
G: What other book by him did you read?
S: The Financial Lives of the Poets, which is so perfect. It’s definitely of its time and I don’t know how well it will age but that book was just the perfect novel.
G: So booktalk Citizen Vince to me.
S: So you’re introduced to a guy, Vince Camden, when he gets up, still in the middle of the night, to start his day and eventually get to his job at the doughnut shop in Spokane where he makes the doughnuts. He starts his day by wondering does he know more people alive than dead? He starts counting off all of the people in his life he knows who are dead. And through this mental exercise while he’s walking through Spokane — and he talks about why it’s important to him to walk and not drive, because it keeps him more connected, and looking at the architecture as he walks — he introduces you to his life. He’s essentially a small-time criminal. He’s got an arrangement with a mail carrier to grab people’s credit cards before they’re delivered. He’ll copy down the numbers, make fake cards, sell the fake cards, and then people have about a month to use them before the credit card company notices these extra charges. So that’s how he makes money. And he figures out that there’s someone following him who probably means to kill him. And through this you figure out why he ended up in Spokane — he’s not from there, and he can’t talk about the life he had before. I don’t know how much of a spoiler it is to say he’s in witness protection, but there’s so much more to the story.
G: What’s the hook for you, just the writing?
S: The writing. Just that first couple of pages where he’s thinking about does he know more people dead than alive.
G: That just got you totally into it.
S: Oh my God. It so paints the character and how this book is going to be written. At the same time that he’s dealing with these people who are potentially going to hurt him, dealing with old grudges, dealing with loyalties, he’s also talking to this cop about whether or not people can really change. Is it all their circumstances? It’s this incredibly deep philosophical mystery about a small-time criminal. When I got to meet Jess Walter at a library conference, I told him, “I’m in love with Vince Camden,” and he said, “You know what? I am too.” I fell in love with this main character, he’s just so great. It’s one of those books where I can see the scenes in my head and they come to me like my own memories.
S: So when I met the author I had to buy a copy so I could get him to sign it to me.
G: Of course!
S: And I have to keep it forever, because I’m in love with Vince Camden.
G: In love with a character in a book.
S: Oh my God. And at the same time, if he was real, our relationship would be a total train wreck! But oh, I’m so in love with him.
There’s a part in the book where Vince has a crush on a woman who comes into the doughnut shop so he tries to be reading a book that will impress her every time she comes in. So he starts book after book after book, and then loses interest because he needs to start a new book to look impressive to her. I think about that a lot.
G: I hear people describe characters in books like that. Who would I be in love with if I was in love with a character in a book? I don’t even know. I guess my heart melted a lot when I read Stargirl for the first time.
S: Oh, yeah.
G: Just because you can see how cool she is.
G: And Spinelli wrote it about his wife, I think.
S: Oh, I didn’t know that.
G: That’s what I’ve heard. It’s about the little boy falling in love with the strange girl at school, who plays the ukulele. And that was before it was cool!
S: Before it was cool.
G: I remember reading Weetzie Bat the first time, in grad school and being like, “Ohhhh, I remember that girl from high school.”
G: But then it’s like she’s a disaster. You’re reading it as an adult and she’s a disaster but she’s still so lovely.
S: I read that when I was still a teen.
G: Did you?
S: Yeah, and if I hadn’t been the sort of person I was, that book could have sent me in a really bad direction.
S: “This is a good idea, to live like this!” No it is not!
G: So you’re saying Weetzie Bat should be banned.
S: Yes, it should be banned because it almost didn’t even remotely turn me into a human train wreck.
G: Do you think that book could set a kid on the wrong path? I kind of don’t think it could.
S: Well… yeah. It romanticizes this sort of life…
G: It really does romanticize.
S: They’re broke, they’re using drugs, they’re sort of…
G: Eating hot dogs at Pink’s…
S: Deciding to have a baby because it might be cool. Oh boy.
S: I think, because I read so much YA fiction, I read about so many kids where I think, “I’d like to be the stable adult in your life,” a friend they could talk to. But in adult books there aren’t many times I think this character is so perfect! I mean, and not a perfect person, but so well drawn that you think of them as a person in your life.