“I didn’t think I would like it, but I binged that book like it was Netflix!” This reaction by one of my students to Jess Walter’s Citizen Vince perfectly sums up why I have taught this novel in my community college English 101 classes for the past seven years. Many of my first-year college students enter my classroom as reluctant readers, skeptical that any book their English instructor makes them read will be relevant to their lives. They expect it to be hard. They expect it to be boring. They certainly don’t expect it to speak to their own hopes and struggles. When they read about the life of Vince Camden, Walter’s credit-card stealing, pot-dealing protagonist who—in spite of the opportunity given to him by the witness protection program to start his life over—remains stuck in his old habits and old patterns of thinking, my students are surprised to see themselves in Vince. And they want to read more.
It’s not an instant attraction, however. Some struggle with the structure of the first chapter: “why doesn’t the author tell us who Vince is before we start reading Vince’s thoughts? Why just jump right into his head like that? It’s confusing!” Others complain that the chapters are too long (the longest is 48 pages). Some are put off by the profanity: “The first f-bomb appears on page 8,” one of my students announces as she walks into class. “Is that normal for a college book?” Still others tell me that they don’t want to care about a guy who hangs out with prostitutes and sells drugs: “I shouldn’t have to read about people like that!”
It doesn’t take long, however, for most of my North Idaho students to get hooked. After all, Citizen Vince is a page-turner, a crime novel set in nearby Spokane with plenty of twists and turns and humor to engage them in spite of their initial resistance. But along the way, Vince grapples with some big questions, questions that my students grapple with, too: What does it mean to be normal? Are we destined to repeat our past or is it possible to truly change? How does one begin to take responsibility for one’s choices? What does it mean to be a productive member of society? My students begin to root for Vince because they find something familiar in his quest for redemption.
Like Vince, my students long for a better life, but they worry about whether they are capable of doing what it takes to achieve it. They enroll in community college because they know that they want something more for themselves, even if they don’t yet know what that “more” is. My favorite passage from Citizen Vince recalls a scene from Vince’s past, when, as a young man just out of prison in New York City, he would observe the college students in Washington Square and wonder what they had that he didn’t:
“Something was missing. Was it simply the sense of opportunity that came from having money and education? Was it a question of patterns of thought; were they conditioned to make better choices? Or was it some personality trait—a drive, an assuredness, some measure of place in the world—some quality that Vince could define only by his lack of it.”
This point in the novel is magical to me, because it is here where so many of my students locate themselves in the text. Walter’s portrayal of Vince’s insecurity, his sense of separateness and otherness from those college kids, resonates deeply in my classroom. My students identify far more with Vince in this scene than with the students he watches, and this passage often leads to a class discussion in which we begin to break open their assumptions about academic success and unpack the worries they have about their place at the college table.
During a discussion of Walter’s use of setting in the novel, one of my students proclaims “Location, location, location—that’s what this book is all about!” She explains that it’s not just important to notice how Jess Walter describes the places in the novel, like saying that Sam’s Pit, the dive bar in Spokane where Vince hangs out “works like a drain for the city,” but to notice how Vince thinks about those places. Other students agree, pointing out that when Vince’s thoughts about where he is begin to change, he begins to change. It is at moments like this when I tell them that they are exhibiting the kind of scholarly habits that I expect of college students: they are asking questions about the text, examining it to see how it works, and making claims about its importance.
It’s no wonder that Vince’s attention to his surroundings and shifting sense of belonging come up in our classroom discussions. Most of my students find themselves in my English 101 class because of its location. They have enrolled at our community college because they need a local, affordable place to go to school. Recent high school graduates are there because they were told by their high school counselors that they need to go to college in order to have a good career. Many of my older students find themselves in my classroom after years of working a string of minimum wage jobs. Tired of barely making it, they’ve returned to college in search of financial security. Still others are veterans for whom my composition class is one small part of a larger adjustment to civilian life. My students’ reluctance to read is often intertwined with their uncertainty about the shifting landscapes of their own lives. Citizen Vince surprises them by speaking to their struggles and making them readers. “Are you sure this is literature?” one of my students asks me after class. “I didn’t know they made books like this for guys like me.”
Erin Davis lives and writes in Spokane, Washington and teaches English at North Idaho College. She holds an M.A. in English-Literacy Studies from CSU Long Beach, and has focused her teaching career for the last eighteen years on the needs of first-year writers and first-generation college students.