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The Ballot or the Bullet

Reviewed by Maureen Corrigan
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page BW06


By Jess Walter. Regan. 304 pp. $24.95

Imagine a moving and inspirational book about the right to vote in America. Then imagine, if you possibly can, that the book in question is neither a flag-festooned picture book nor a history of the civil rights movement but rather a darkly comic crime novel.

Naaw, you can't imagine it; you just have to read it.

Citizen Vince is the third novel by Jess Walter, an investigative journalist whose other writing credits include co-authoring In Contempt, a bestselling memoir by Christopher Darden, a member of the O.J. Simpson prosecution team. Perhaps the proximity to that circus gave Walter his skewed sensibility when it comes to ruminating on matters of conscience. Whatever its sources, Citizen Vince is utterly inventive in tone and plot. Maybe if Aaron Copland had written the score for a film noir starring the Marx Brothers there would be some prototype for Walter's fusion fiction, but he didn't and there isn't. And the best thing about Citizen Vince is that it isn't one of those antic-for-the-sake-of-being-offbeat literary efforts; instead, this is a compelling novel whose motivating questions are deadly earnest: What are the responsibilities of citizenship? How real is the promise of meritocracy? Is America the land of second acts, or are we all, as F. Scott Fitzgerald decided at the end of The Great Gatsby, "like boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past"?

Fitzgerald constructed a pretty good fictional situation in Gatsby upon which to hang that final verdict about American social mobility, but Walter arguably concocts an even better one: The year is 1980, and the novel's hero, Vince Camden, has been given a chance at reinvention courtesy of a witness-protection program. We first become acquainted with Vince as the 36-year-old death-obsessed manager of a donut shop called "Donut Make You Hungry" in Spokane, Wash. Even early on, however, there are strong indications that there's more to the likable Vince than powdered sugar and sprinkles. He seems to be involved in some kind of credit-card scam, and he likes to hang out at an after-hours barbecue joint called Sam's Pit, frequented by the usual lowlife mélange of pimps, drunks and hookers. And then there's that sadistic hit man who's recently arrived in town, out to whack Vince. Things just don't add up.

Turns out that Vince is a mobbed-up New Yorker who was whisked out west courtesy of the feds three years ago in exchange for some crucial information. As his current credit-card shenanigans demonstrate, Vince's sojourns inside the prison system haven't scared him straight; neither has he been redeemed by the love of a sort-of-good woman, a waif named Beth who's one of the hookers at Sam's. (Beth is making a lame effort to leave the life by earning her real estate license.) Then, out of the blue, Vince receives his voter's registration card in the mail. A convicted felon since the age of 18, Vince has never been allowed to vote; under his alias, however, his slate has been wiped clean, and he's eligible to vote in his first election -- the contest between President Carter and Ronald Reagan. As Election Day nears, Vince becomes swept up in the agonies of informed decision-making. Here's how he explains his newfound civic fixations to himself:

"It's like this: You're out there living your own life, and then, every four years, they give you a say -- a tiny say in how this moment should proceed . . . a small say in which incremental direction we will go, and sure, it's 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 [expletive] miracle."

Thus ensues a simultaneously tense and screwball suspense story: As Vince dodges the hit man as well as local police (that's another subplot altogether) and even flies cross-country to New York City to try to reason with the mob kingpin who has put the contract out on him, he engages almost everyone he meets in political debate. For instance, he instigates a salty conversation around the table at an all-night Mafia card game in New York's Mott Street about why Carter can't win a second term, and the repartee rivals the sharpest examples featured on "The Sopranos." Two stream-of-consciousness riffs at the center of the novel even take readers into the minds, respectively tortured and serene, of Carter and Reagan. The excruciatingly breathless climax of this novel pits the claims of civic responsibility against those of self-preservation as Vince insists on exercising his voting rights in the face of almost certain oblivion. In its coarse, violent and very funny way, Citizen Vince is an affecting testament to American faith in the common man as well as to the resilient possibilities of the crime novel. •

Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches literature at Georgetown University.

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