Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Citizen Vince

I really don't have time to blog this blog. But I need to take a few minutes to tell you then I really didn't have time to read this book either... and I'm not sorry I did.

When you read a book for a book group, the perfect strategy, and I know this because I've seen it done, is to start reading the book with about a week to go, take your time, make a few notes, and finish up with a day or two to prepare some comments about narrative voice, character arcs, and social impact. When discussion time rolls around, the characters, the complexities of the plot, the flavor of the author's style--all these things will be fresh in your mind and you'll be fully prepared either to deify or to vilify the author, as the case may be.

Some people actually pull this off. Go figure. For me, a born procrastinator, the natural tendency is to leave it until the last moment. Then, upon realizing I have 400 pages to go and 24 hours remaining until the book group meeting, I have to choose between calling in sick to work, forgoing sleep, skimming the book, or reading the first two chapters and smiling and nodding desperately during the book group meeting in an attempt to conceal my ignorance.

And finally, there's the Third Way. If, for whatever reason, you happen to get the assigned book well ahead of the meeting, and if something tempts you to open it, and something further tempts you to dip your toe in the first page, and you have a little time, and the book is as engaging and compulsively readable as Jess Walter's Citizen Vince , you may find yourself wolfing down the whole thing. Then, when meeting time comes, you can say with fervor that you loved it, that the characters were brilliantly drawn, that the ending was just right, that the suspense kept you reading until 2 a.m. ... you just can't offer any specifics to back up your rave review.

All of which is a tangential lead-in to saying how great Citizen Vince is. Simple premise: a small-time hood gets trapped into betraying his mob bosses, and winds up in the Witness Protection Program. Life is easy enough. He's got a legitimate business (donuts), an illegitimate one (credit card theft), a neurotic hooker girlfriend, and enough leisure time to ponder whether he should, for the first time in his life, vote. (It's 1980--Reagan vs. Carter.) But then an East Coast hit man comes looking for him, and he knows that drastic steps are going to be necessary.

I don't usually like novels about mobsters (Florida Straits by Lawrence Shames and The Sicilian by Mario Puzo being two exceptions). Never did understand all the fuss about the Godfather movies. But Jess Walter does a whole slew of brilliant things in this one (did I mention it won the 2006 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel?), of which I'll mention three.

First, the narrative voice is insanely appealing--wise, sad, funny, perceptive, and authentic. What happens in the book is sometimes ordinary, sometimes scary, sometimes just plain disturbing, but the lens we see it through makes it all as fascinating and morbidly satisfying as a traffic accident happening to someone else.

Second, the characters are familiar archetypes, for the most part--the small-time hood in over his head, the hapless girlfriend, the psychopathic mob boss--but each of them is a fascinating variant of his or her subspecies. Each has a twisted, authentic logic that makes his or her peculiarities believable and meaningful in the larger framework--each is struggling to find or hold onto his or her place in life. In an odd way you even have to like the villains in this book, just because they're so ingeniously rendered.

And third, the plot is a sneakily powerful engine that just kind of purrs along, generating a lot of horsepower without making much noise. Everyday incidents--opening a donut shop, playing poker with the guys, talking to the mailman--are somehow converted into high-octane fuel, and before you know it, you've stayed up all night to see this beautiful vehicle reach the end of its journey.

Brilliant, really brilliant. From time to time over the years I have wondered about the sanity of those who award the Edgars. Not this time.


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