Jess Walter has that magic something that puts him a notch above most contemporary novelists. There are so many ways in which this novel about a small time criminal living in Spokane, WA in a witness protection program could have gone wrong. Basic plot elements, style and characters could easily have led this book straight into the immense garbage bin where not-that-good crime novels belong. But Walter adds his secret ingredients and this potentially weak noir story becomes a unique, brilliant, powerful, living and breathing work with the complexity and the cohesion of the best novels ever written.
Some reviewers said this is a book
about citizenship as a conquer, and they are right. Some other
reviewers said this is a book about redemption, and they are also right.
Someone else said this book cannot be categorized or clearly labeled
under a genre. I agree with that, too.
These are the main elements that elevate this book:
- the unusual level of depth and intelligence (many memorable sentences and moments when you think "wow, that is actually right")
the ability to make his characters jump out of the page and be true
and alive. You know how sometimes you feel a character in a book is
being played by a b-movie actor? Well, it's as if Walter's characters
were played by some of the best movie stars.
- the smart, omnipresent sense of humor.
and, of course, the political sub-plot, centered on the presidential
elections of 1980 and the meaning that political participation can add
to an individual's life. Now, let's talk about this for a second. Too
often I've seen authors trying to give me the "sub-plot" thing, while in
reality what they were doing was just patching together different
pieces of thoughts and failing miserably. One example of this
kind of failure, even if I am referring to a movie, is "Killing them softly",
with Brad Pitt. They tried to infuse that film with a "political
sub-plot", failing in a spectacular way. While the main simple plot develops, TV screens with Obama speeches go on
in the background. Those TV scenes in the background and a final cynical comment made by
one character, do NOT make a political subplot. In "Citizen Vince", EVERYTHING converges to that focal point: the relationship between the
individual citizen and the wider community, expressed in the right to
vote. The meaning of your life as part of a much wider thing, the
responsibility that comes with that and the privilege that it is to be a
part of the democratic process, without any excessive patriotism or
idealism, with all the proper doubts and questions posed at the right
time, but with a message that comes out loud and clear despite the
apparent simplicity of the plot.
I'm in pain. To know that I will never be able to write like Jess Walter is a childish but really painful thought.