Hello Darkness My Old Friend
Novelist Andrew Vachss Brings His Grim Tales To Anchorage
by Amanda Coyne
Before Andrew Vachss became a lawyer and best-selling author, his sundry career included work as a labor organizer, a social services caseworker, the director of a maximum-security youth prison and a sexually-transmitted disease investigator for the U.S. Public Health Service. When Vachss worked for the feds, syphilis was his thing. He talked to people who had it, talked to people who gave it to them, and then talked to the people who gave it to them.
"It was a hell of a job," he said in a recent phone interview from Portland, Oregon, where he was promoting his latest book, Only Child. "I saw some horrifying stuff."
What horrified Vachss most was what adults did to children, he said. He saw one infant with a venereal disease. He saw another nearly torn apart by rape. It threw him into a permanent state of controlled rage.
Vachss was also horrified by what he saw in Africa. In 1969 he oversaw an aid agency on the front lines of the Nigerian civil war, where he contracted malaria and got his nerves good and fried.
So he was horrified, mad, and fried—a combination that would send most people to the couch with a bowl of oatmeal. It sent Vachss to the typewriter.
Writing wasn't new to him. Before Flood, the first of a series of 14 novels featuring Burke, a mercenary, he'd written a textbook about juvenile justice, although it never reached outside the criminal justice system.
"I longed for a bigger congregation," he writes in his introduction to Flood, published in 1985. But he did not yearn for fame; he avoids the parties, the author's lunches. "I don't have time for all of that," he said. "I'm trying to make a difference."
Vachss wanted a bigger audience so that he could make a difference in the way the world treats child abuse.
His books took a while to catch on. His portrayals are unusually frank, taking an unblinking look at the underbelly of the underbelly, the horrible ways that people hurt children. Vachss has written about pedophiles who work in daycare centers, child pornography on the internet, illegal organ harvesting, the serial murder of teenage prostitutes, AIDS, gay-bashing and a suburban S&M ring. Only Child takes readers through a distasteful world of underground film production in New York.
Reviewers were not kind to his first novels, he recalled. "They said, What kind of sick, crazy mind would fantasize about such things?"
But critics don't sell books. Readers sell books. Word of mouth sells books. And Vachss' books had people chattering.
Now people wait impatiently for another Burke book, and the reviewers have come around, calling his work "edgy" and "raw and hungry," saying his plots "pierce like bullets" and "churn with energy and a memorable gallery of the walking wounded." Now the reviewers say he "fills a void" and shines "light into the darkest recesses."
Alaska is Vachss' last stop on a two-week tour.
"I've heard people say that Alaska, with all its fresh air, doesn't have any problems," he said. "I know better. Alaska's got child abuse problems just like everywhere else. Alaska should be a media stop. It's an important place. It hasn't made up its mind about a lot of things yet, and that makes it real attractive. If I can just get one member of the audience to listen, it will be worth it."
Vachss is a busy man. In addition to the 14 Burke novels, he's written another textbook, numerous articles, comic books, two books of short stories and song lyrics. He's also a full-time lawyer who only represents children—a luxury he can afford now that his books are successful.
"I'm a full-time lawyer and part-time writer," he said. "I write bits and pieces at a time. I've never had the luxury to sit down and just write a book. I don't want that luxury. My material comes out of my life, my job, on the streets. There's no tour bus that goes through my world. You have to live it. I wouldn't be living it if all I did was write."
You can find out almost everything you want to know about Vachss on his website (www.vachss.com), which includes information on his legal and political activities, newspaper articles on convicted child molesters, his speeches and interviews and the correct pronouncement of his name ("vax," like "fax"). But there are some things the website leaves out. It won't tell you, for instance, that the author wears an eye patch because of a childhood injury. And it won't tell you that one of the characters in his books, Wolfe—a former sex crimes prosecutor—is modeled after his wife.
Vachss' website also won't tell you that he has a few things in common with his protagonist, Burke, such as a love of racehorses, women and dogs. But unlike Vachss, Burke is "nothing but a criminal," Vachss said. He lies, cheats and steals, he's been in and out of prison and has sex with prostitutes. Burke is different from other tough-guy protagonists, who are generally descended from the archetypes forged by Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett. Burke isn't redeemable. He has no soft core; he's all hardened exterior. He's simply this: a criminal who loves his dog and hates child molesters.
"I had no interest in imitating all the Chandler clones out there," Vachss said. "If I presented you with the typical private eye—always sensitive, always handsome—you wouldn't believe in him or in his world."
Another thing Vachss' website won't tell you: if you read his latest book, Only Child, you might find yourself a little lost. Granted, it's part of a series, and it's always hard to jump into the last book in a series. But it doesn't help that Vachss refuses to play catch-up with his readers.
Still, even if there were a guide to Vachss plots and characters—which include Mama, a Chinese restaurant owner; Max, a deaf-mute giant; Michelle, a transvestite; and a pair of lesbian "power exchangers"—there's something else going on in his novels that's both confusing and ultimately satisfying. There's a vernacular unique to the underworld he writes about. Vachss stubbornly refuses to let Burke step out of character and interpret. Here's the way he introduces a character called Gateman:
"Last time down, the jury hung on homicide. Gateman claimed the other guy was making his move. Self-defense. The other guy was strapped, but he never cleared leather. Gateman's a cutie. Told the DA he had to sit anyway, might as well sit on The Rock until they tried him again. They have a staredown, and the DA blinked. Kept dropping the offer. When it got down to Man Two, Gateman took the lucky seven, did his half-plus."
I m still not sure what "cleared leather" means. Nor do I understand how sitting "on The Rock" constitutes a threat to the DA. And where is "The Rock," anyway? Alcatraz? Maybe, but Gateman's in New York. And what does it mean to do a half-plus? Half your sentence plus time off for good behavior? Maybe. But Burke and Vachss aren't telling. Vachss prefers his characters straight up—no splash of water, not even a few rocks.
"I write the way people in that world talk," he said. "Do you really think that (the kinds of) people in an Elmore Leonard novel talk that way? I'll sacrifice a few readers to get authenticity."
To his credit, Vachss doesn't strive for authenticity by barraging the reader with lurid details. He doesn't need to. Yet in addition to the street talk his books come with plenty of allusions to nasty situations. You're not going to leave skipping. He doesn't want you to. He's going for rage. He doesn't want you to like him, he wants you to be like him.
© 2002 Anchorage Press.
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