Benny Jay: Vince The Citizen

December 4th, 2019

For the past few days I’ve been up way past midnight reading Citizen Vince, a novel by Jess Walter.

Great book. I urge everyone to read it.

It tells the story of Vince Camden, a small-time hood from New York City, who winds up with a new identity in the federal witness protection program, working at a donut shop in Spokane, Washington.

One day a mobster from his past comes into his life and the plot takes off from there.

But the thing that makes the book so special — what distinguishes it from all the other tough-guy novels I routinely read — is its recurring riff on politics.

It takes place on the eve of the 1980 presidential election — Jimmy Carter v. Ronald Reagan.

Obsessed with the race, largely because he’s determined to vote for the first in his life, Vince struggles with an existential question: Does my vote matter, if I’m one of 200 or so million people casting one?

Wish I had an answer to that one.


I voted for Jimmy Carter….

Or as Walter writes: “Here is Vince Camden, overwhelmed by his own significance and by the weight of so many choices, undone by this miracle of being and by all these strands connected in the thread of some simple thought: Which of these stupid fucks are you supposed to vote for?

Oh, Vince — I can relate.

He’s like a pilgrim, searching for enlightenment, asking people who they’re voting for and why?

He gets some interesting responses, like this one from Tic, his colleague at the donut shop….

“I don’t vote, Mr. Vince. That’s what they want — register your ass. So when the shit comes down, they just go to their master list and bang! First thing next morning, you got a fuckin’ hominig device in your teeth.”

Okay, Tic.

He has a classic exchange with a woman named Shirley Stafford, who’s going door-to-door for John Anderson’s third party campaign.


But I should have voted for third-party candidate Barry Commoner….

“`Anderson’s at what, ten percent, four days before the election? I just don’t get why you’re still out here, doing this.'”

“`John Anderson has a chance to poll the highest percentage of any third-party candidate since….'”

“`But he can’t win.'”

“She shifts uncomfortably and slides her lips over the big teeth. `Well, no. But John Anderson believes….'”

“`Look, I’m not talking about that guy. I’m talking about you. Why go door-to-door trying to drum up support for some guy with no chance?'”

Unfortunately, Shirley has no immediate answer. But later she returns, having thought about his question, to tell Vince….

“`I know you’re right; this time we won’t win. But if we can get ten percent, maybe the next outsider will get twenty. And maybe one day twenty years from now, we’ll have more than those two corporate choices.'”

Alas, it’s been over 30 years since that election and we’re pretty much stuck on the same old “two corporate choices.”

Next election, though — maybe then.

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