Jess Walter wants to have a fishing derby. And not just any fishing derby, but one worthy of the Spokane River and everything that's in it.
"The fish wouldn't win by size, but by weight," he explains. "Because there's so much lead in the river, you could have a fish that's only four inches long but still wins because it weighs 22 pounds." He warms up to his theme. "In fact, you could have winners for all sorts of different categories, like 'Percentage of PCBs' or 'Number of Eyes or Extra Fins.' They're not even fish anymore, they're like swimming boxes of Tide."
I'm not sure how we even got from talking about Walter's new book Citizen Vince to this, but I'm thinking his idea has merit. If nothing else, it's almost an extenuation of the sorts of conversations that take place within the pages of Walter's latest set-in-Spokane novel. Two hookers argue about bras and a donut cook rhapsodizes on the subject of maple bars (Wanna marry a maple bar and have little maple-bar babies and go to their little donut baseball games, have slumber parties with all their little bear-claw, cinnamon-twisty friends...). Even the main character, Vince, can't quit mentally adding up all the dead people he knows.
Of course, Vince has good reason to be counting up dead people; if he's not careful he could become one himself (see excerpt, page 25). It's 1980, and Vince Camden has a quiet little job, courtesy of the Witness Protection Program, in a quiet little city. In between day shifts at Donut Make You Hungry and nights spent in the comfortingly seedy environs of Sam's Pit, Vince walks the broken sidewalks of Spokane alternating between wondering who to vote for (Reagan or Carter?) and wondering if he's being followed. His predilection for petty crime notwithstanding (including selling credit card numbers and packing marijuana into souvenir jars of Mt. St. Helens ash), Vince is also an architecture freak and -- much like Walter himself -- a voracious reader.
Just visit his Web site (jesswalter.com) and take a look at his "Stuff I Like" page. In addition to the essay on Kurt Vonnegut that he wrote for The Inlander last spring, you'll find a series of blurbs on no less than 22 books, complete with Walter's comments: "Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again: Turns out I loved this in college for the wrong reasons." In fact, seeing that title is a little ironic in that both in his fiction and his life, Walter successfully goes home again and again and again.
Walter grew up in the Spokane Valley, studied writing at EWU and worked for the Spokesman-Review before publishing his first book, Every Knee Shall Bow (based on his reportage of the Randy Weaver trial and later retitled Ruby Ridge). He left the Review in 1995 to write full time and has since published three novels (Over Tumbled Graves, Land of the Blind and Citizen Vince) as well as co-writing prosecutor Christopher Darden's account of the O.J. Simpson trial, In Contempt. All three of his novels are set in Spokane, and even though Walter is regularly called to New York and L.A. to meet with publishers and producers, and even though writer friends in larger cities might flip him shit about still living here, Walter is happy to defend the city that he calls "my Bedford Falls."
"Citizen Vince started out as a screenplay and it was kind of a joke when we were talking about filming it here in terms of getting the period right -- Hell, there are some neighborhoods in Spokane where we wouldn't even have to move the cars off the streets, they're so old!'" he laughs, his voice bending into buoyant mock optimism. "But writing Citizen Vince as a screenplay first was a good exercise for me in terms of seeing the city as a place in the world. I realized how much I love Spokane and you see that mirrored in Vince. He's from the East Coast, but he loves this city."
Walter's decision to set his book in 1980 is just as deliberate as his wanting it to unfold in Spokane. Although he wasn't old enough then to vote, Walter's awareness of politics can be traced back just about as far as that fateful Carter-Reagan showdown.
"The 1980 election is the first political campaign that I remember. I came from a strong labor/strong Democrat family, and I think that was the first time that I remember realizing that there was a real psychological component to elections," he explains. "We had national low self-esteem, really high inflation, the energy crisis -- and all of that insecurity was part of the election and how it played out. It was also the dawn of my consciousness of Spokane as a place in the world. Spokane seemed so much more isolated in 1980, before 24-hour news and the Internet. It seemed like a good place to make a disappeared person reappear."
Walter printed up a month's worth of old Spokesman-Reviews in order to recreate the eight days his novel covers (including an actual campaign stump speech byRonald Reagan's son at the real Casey's restaurant on Monroe). Within all that, he drew on his friendships with cops, real protection program witnesses and even characters in previous novels to flesh out a story arc that falls somewhere in among crime thrillers, political novels and literary fiction. And with the invention of a local politician who unwittingly wins over the main character, it's possible that Walter has written the first-ever novel to focus more on a voter than a politician.
"I never set out to write a cross between a crime book and a political book. That was kind of a fortuitous accident," he says. "But I love the irony of the fact that it's eight days before the election and Vince is really the only one in the entire book who cares about politics. I know how earnest and kind of wholesome that sounds, even as I say it. The only way I could get away with it is by putting it in the context of all these seamy characters."
While Walter's earlier books have all won their share of critical praise, Citizen Vince is the one that feels most like Walter's big breakout book. There's talk of making it into a movie that Walter admits is "substantial," and Richard Russo (Nobody's Fool, Empire Falls) blurbed it with both Midas-like approval and incredible insight: "Here are characters who seem to live of their own volition, who talk out of a terrible inner need to make themselves known and understood, who reveal not just themselves but the yearning heart of our great flawed democracy."
Walter jokes that it's a little weird to have all this attention being showered on his fifth book -- "It's great to know I've improved as a writer, but it's a little bit like someone saying, 'You know, your first two kids were great but that third one is amazing!'" -- but he appreciates it all the same.
"It's been 10 years since my first book came out, and I still think it's hard to pick a favorite or look at what I've done and say 'That one is the best,'" he admits. Luckily, he doesn't haved to say it... everyone from Kirkus Reviews to his own editors are saying it for him. But Walter remains humble.
"When it comes right down to it, it's flattering to have written enough books to even have a best in anybody's opinion, you know?"
CITIZEN VINCE: AN EXCERPT
Vince Camden walks everywhere. In two years he still hasn't gotten used to all of the cars; everyone drives everywhere here, even the ladies. In this town, five guys drive to a tavern in five cars, have a beer, then get in their five cars and drive three blocks to the next tavern. It's not just wasteful. It's uncivilized. People say it's because of the harsh winters in Spokane, which are a cross between upstate New York and Pluto. But outside a few places in Florida and California, the weather is shitty everywhere. Every place is too hot or too cold or too humid or too something. No, even in the cold Vince prefers walking - like now, strolling away from Doug's storefront toward downtown, which looms ahead, a couple of newer twenty-story glass-and-steel slabs surrounded by brick-and-stone stumps. He likes the cluster of buildings from a distance like this - the suggestion of cornices and pillars; imagination fills in the blanks.
Vince stops at a little diner, orders coffee, and sits alone at a table, staring out the window, chewing a thumbnail. Twice in one day: that word. Paranoid. Still, how could you possibly tell if you're paranoid when worrying about being paranoid is a symptom of paranoia? It's not the fact of Doug asking where he gets the credit cards, necessarily, or of Lenny showing up in the alley two days early - although either one of those things would have made him suspicious. It's this feeling he's slogged around with since he woke up - this sense of being herded along, that his time is coming. What if death is just out there, at some fixed point, waiting for you to walk under it like a piano suspended above the sidewalk? He feels like a chess piece, like a knight that's come out with no support and is being chased around the board by the other side's pawns. He can escape the pawns, but he senses other pieces, larger pieces, more significant pieces - a move, two moves, three moves away. After a minute, Vince goes to the front of the diner and drops a quarter into the pay phone. Dials.
"Hey. Is he in?"
"It's Vince, You up for a game of chess?"
"Jesus. Okay, okay... This is twenty-four-thirteen. I need to come in. There. How's that?"
"Of course it's an emergency. What do you think?"
He hangs up, walks back to his table and finishes his coffee. He zips up his windbreaker and steps outside. He walks with his head tilted forward, toward downtown. It's cool and sunny and the combination thrills him in a way; he pulls a deep breath through his nose and takes in the bare, skeletal trees, the strip of black avenue leading downtown. It really is a beautiful city in its way. Not so much architecturally, but in contrasts: glimmers of style against those drastic hills and urban trees, and through it all the river cut - a wilderness very nearly civilized with a few tons of concrete, blacktop and brick. A real place. He walks without looking back, uncharacteristically.
If he did look back, he wouldn't like what he saw. Two blocks behind him, Len Huggins's burgundy Cadillac sits in front of Doug's Passport Photos and Souvenirs.
Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins, New York