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'Citizen Vince' explores redemption and second chances

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'Citizen Vince' by Jess Walter

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In "Citizen Vince" by New York Times bestselling local author Jess Walter, a career criminal tries to start over in Spokane and ends up falling back into old patterns that almost end his life before he can seek redemption. Set against the backdrop of the 1980 presidential election, the book is both a fascinating crime fiction story and an interesting look at the Lilac City's past.

The novel begins with a typical day in the life of doughnut shop manager Vince Camden. Soon, readers learn that Vince is a drug dealer and gambler and he originally came from New York. He spends his free time at an infamous after hours club called Sam's Pit that used to be a Spokane institution before it was shut down in 1993 hanging out with hookers, off-duty police officers and other poker players. Vince is in the witness relocation program, but that doesn't stop him from running a complicated credit card scam with some help from three accomplices.

A member of Vince's crew gets greedy and brings in a violent sociopath named Ray to try to force Vince to give him a bigger cut of their ill-gotten earnings. This does not go as planned. First, Ray kills another member of the crew. Then he goes after Vince. Staying one step ahead of Ray, the local police and an uncooperative U.S. marshal who is supposed to be protecting him, Vince goes back to New York to try to make amends with the gangsters he assumes have tracked him down and sent Ray to assassinate him.

A local police officer named Alan Dupree figures out part of Vince's plan and follows him to New York where he gets some help from a corrupt local cop who insists on being called Detective Charlie. As Dupree methodically pursues Vince with a little help from Charlie, Vince tries to make things right with a crime boss he testified against and eventually ends up in a high stakes poker gang with real world gangster John Gotti. Vince is hoping to get the hit on him called off by offering to pay back some of his old debts, but at any moment his plan could backfire.

Eventually, Vince makes peace with Gotti. Unfortunately, he has to kill Ray to hold up his end of the bargain. So, he returns to Spokane and engages in a game of cat and mouse with Ray on the day of the election. Several lives are at stake and readers are kept wondering how the clever, yet nonviolent Vince will stop the notorious Ray Sticks.

One of many interesting things about the novel is how Walter explores the theme of redemption throughout the story. The subplot about the two police officers is really a story about trying to get Charlie to turn his life around as Dupree learns more than he wants to about his various shady dealings and substance abuse problems. Vince is, in his own flawed way, sincerely trying to go straight. The woman Vince loves is a prostitute who wants to go into real estate and live a normal life with her son. The villains in the story are bad guys partly because they weren't able to give the only way of living they know.

For some reason, Vince sees voting for president as an important step along his path to redemption. He has been a convicted felon ever since he turned 18, so he has never been able to vote or legally own a firearm. When he gets a voter registration card for his current identity, he sees it as an opportunity to turn over a new leaf and start acting like a law-abiding citizen. One of several interesting things Walter does as he explores this thread of the plot is that he has Vince encounter politicians such as former Speaker of the House Tom Foley and a state senate hopeful named Aaron Grebbe. Chapters of the book are told from the perspectives of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and Walter makes Reagan seem almost as bad as the gangsters as he describes both presidential candidates' reactions to the ongoing Iran hostage crisis.

"Citizen Vince" is a well-crafted novel with a strong plot that will appeal to anyone who enjoys reading about organized crime. However, some readers will probably be more interested in Walter's descriptions of Spokane in a simpler time and how he contrasts both the good and bad aspects of life in the Lilac City with the hustle and bustle of New York. People who grew up in the area will experience some nostalgia as they see the city through the eyes of an outsider who loves it more than they do. It is also interesting to be reminded of what life was like before the Internet. Some of the stuff Vince does would be harder to pull off in a world where Google exists, but that just adds more authenticity to Walter's story.

"Citizen Vince" is available from online retailers such as Barnes and Noble and local bookstores such as Auntie's Books. It is also available to borrow as an ebook from the online book subscription service Scribd, along with several of his other novels such as "The Zero", "Beautiful Ruins" and "The Financial Lives of the Poets" for those who are considering trying out the service.

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