A Man Who Will Die Trying
By Paula Guran
The name is pronounced "vax" as in "ax." A succinct sharp syllable that cuts straight through the bullshit. The sort of name some word processing wimp of a fiction writer might imagine as suitable for a superhero or forceful warrior. And—although Andrew Vachss has published more than a dozen best selling novels, comic books, a "children's book for adults," and a collection of short stories (with another due out later this year)—he is a warrior using words as weapons in a mission he is as undeniably dedicated to as any superhero could possibly be.
He's after the predators—those who commit crimes of abuse and sexual offense against children—and fiction has become a potent armament in his war against "the Beast." Focusing on Vachss solely as a writer is impossible. He is a combatant in a continuing conflict. "I am a solider in (as far as I'm concerned) the only "Holy War" worthy of the name," he says. "Of necessity, this is guerrilla warfare. Therefore, you use what weapons are available. I 'chose' fiction because I don't own a TV network or a radio station or a newspaper. I wanted to reach a bigger jury than I could ever hope to find in a courthouse. My first book was non-fiction. It got wonderful reviews...and almost no readers outside the 'profession.' I chose 'fiction' because it is the only Trojan Horse available to someone of my resources."
Most of Vachss' novels (including Choice of Evil, due out May 14, from Knopf and Safe House, recently released trade paperback edition by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard—read our reviews of both) center around the character of Burke—don't ask if it's surname or first name. Burke is an urban outlaw who Vachss has described as the "prototypical abused child: hypervigilant, distrustful, so committed to [his] family of choice—not his DNA family [which abandoned him, or the foster families which] tortured him, or the state which raised him, but the family that he chose—that homicide is a natural consequence of injuring any of that family. He's not a hit man. He doesn't strap on a piece and go out in the street and say, 'Well, let me go out and kill a few child molesters today for justice.' But, he shares the same religion I do, which is revenge."
Vachss (and Burke) deal with horrors that some critics have initially called unimaginable—only to later discover that, as always, Vachss was at Ground Zero with the truth: predatory pedophiles trading kiddie porn over the Net; neo-Nazis; trafficking in human organs; pedophiles gaining employment in day-care centers to molest kids; domestic stalking. His intent goes beyond just wanting to inform: "I want to show people the truth, have it frighten them enough (or make them angry enough, depending on individual personalities) for them to do something about it."
Usually labeled as modern crime mysteries, Vachss' fiction is seen by many as modern horror as well. Evil is not an imagined bogy in his violent dark world, but abrasive reality that twists and destroys innocence. Good is not confined within legal boundaries or traditional morality. Yet he does far more than reveal the darkness of life, he reveals the light as well. The reader, enthralled by the fast-paced action and unusual but compelling characters, still comes away as much enlightened as entertained.
"The books have reached a wider audience than I could have fantasized," he admits. The success of his novels has helped fuel his legal practice in which he exclusively represents abused children and he passes up no opportunity to further his cause. His non-fiction articles in Sunday supplement Parade regularly reach in excess of thirty million people. "Every single piece counts toward the end result. Comics, short stories, speeches, haiku, lectures, training sessions, correspondence, face-to-face ... all of that and more. Music, too—whether it's packaging a message or a short story with a CD as in Safe House or in having my own words recorded by others as Son Seals has threatened to do on his forthcoming album. And all the work has been especially enhanced by The Zero [his Web site at www.vachss.com which offers resources for those interested in his issues], which is hit thousands of times a day from all over the world and provides numerous opportunities for exchanges."
As effective as The Zero site is, Vachss also thinks the Internet is used in the "seduction of the arrogantly ignorant." The Net itself is not the problem: "The Internet is a piece of technology, as neutral as an edged blade ... its essence does not exist in a vacuum, and its character is strictly and solely dependent on its usage. The scalpel can cut out a cancerous tumor ... or entertain a serial killer ... but it has no 'character' of its own. If the Internet crashed tomorrow, predators would still stalk, and chumps would continue their ovine ways."
A primary mass medium—film—has, so far, not been employed to further the cause. "I was disinterested in the movies until one of 'them' pointed out that more people would see the biggest flop in the history of cinema than would read the biggest bestseller in the history of books, and if I was really about message ...?" Frequently optioned, none of his work has yet made it to the screen, although two are currently in pre-production with New Line Cinema—an adaptation of his first book, Flood, and a motion picture version of Cross, a novel by Vachss and James Colbert that Dark Horse Comics released in comic book form in 1995. "Everybody seems to hate Hollywood the same way they hate political corruption," he says. "That is, they hate the fact that none of it benefits them. But I have no 'They trashed my art!' stories. In fact, one of the most honorable and ethical individuals I have ever encountered in my life I met while dealing with Hollywood—a producer named Lloyd Segan. That meeting alone, and the subsequent friendship that arose, would have been worth the journey to me."
The truth that is the essence of his dark fiction and his mission comes from front line service. In addition to his legal career, he's been a social case worker, a labor organizer, and directed programs for urban migrants in Chicago, a re-entry center for ex-convicts in Boston, and a maximum security prison for youthful offenders in Massachusetts. He's worked as a community organizer, designer of institutions and programs, a criminal-justice planner, and for the relief effort in war-torn Biafra. Vachss first met the evil of pedophilia as a federal investigator: "I was a federal investigator—part of an epidemiology team fighting sexually transmitted diseases, especially syphilis. My work was to locate the sexual contacts of those infected—which meant everything from back alleys to penthouses—get them tested and, if positive, get them to disclose their contacts. This led to 'chains' of infection. One of them ended in a tiny baby, ripped to pieces to satisfy his 'parent's' sense of pleasure. The details may be too graphic to print, and they don't matter. I saw red dots behind my eyes even when I closed them. And I still see them today. Because that 'human' wasn't Satan. He wasn't one-of-a-kind. He was a member of a tribe of predatory beasts who can only be satisfied with the pain or death of others."
Read enough Vachss and you begin to feel he writes not only from a profound sense of anger, but from some present-day equivalent of the primordial place from which ancient mythmakers derived their symbols and storytelling power. In his latest Burke novel, Choice of Evil, he confronts the reality of gay-bashing. ("Because," he says, "it is symptomatic of evil being a choice—not, as some twits would tell you, a 'condition.' And because it endangers all of us.") There are strong supernatural elements within the plot of Choice of Evil, but Vachss sees this as another form of truth. "I believe there is a 'reality' to the so-called 'supernatural,' and it was organically necessary to the plot of the book so ... it surfaced." Has he ever experienced the supernatural? "I do not give credence to anything I cannot personally verify. I have personally verified some things which would qualify as 'supernatural'."
Vachss also employs characters that attain mythological meaning within the context of his world and the "whisper stream" that informs and feeds it. "But, again," he emphasizes, "the 'mythology' is true; just as perception is reality. And the real 'horror' on this earth isn't 'imaginary.' I pay close attention to the borderland between 'myth' and reality, and often find that 'magic' to one is 'science' to another. So, for example, what are predatory pedophiles but vampires breeding others of their own foul species by violation of the innocent? Because our ancestors called them by a different name doesn't make them 'magical.' Or, for that matter, romantic."
Vachss has even involved the modern myth of Batman in his mission. The novel (and comic book adaptation), Batman: The Ultimate Evil (1995), helped expose the child sex tourism industry in Thailand and gave Vachss an opportunity to lead a boycott of Thai products. [Note: The boycott ended 12/20/00. For the complete story, click here.] In the book, Bruce Wayne discovers his mother was killed while trying to expose a child sex ring based in a fictitious country that is obviously meant to be Thailand. Batman winds up trying to help rebels overthrow the corrupt government that allows the sex trade to flourish. Vachss even appended a factual essay on child sex tourism in Thailand by journalist David Hechler to the book and listed organizations that readers can contact to get involved combating the true "ultimate evil."
Does Vachss see himself as some sort of avenging angel? Does he think, as earlier hard-boiled mystery writer Raymond Chandler did, that the man who tells the stories of the mean streets must be neither mean nor tarnished? "I believe Raymond Chandler was speaking from on high ... from his own lofty perch," he replied. "His characters were always more observers than participants. I don't believe that the 'mean streets' can be successfully traversed by tourists. And I believe an angel (or a White Knight) makes a lousy guide to Hell—albeit a literate one, if that's what you want. I am not mean spirited, but I'm hardly Chandler—in any sense. I guess I'm just enough of a thug to think that maybe virgins don't write the best sex scenes."
But Vachss also concedes, "Knowing something from experience doesn't necessarily mean you can communicate it to others." And when prompted with a reminder that redemption is not always personal, he agreed. "Pointing out how 'fucked up the world is' ... any fool can do that with newsreel coverage of Bosnia, or Rwanda—or New York, if you know where to look. I'm not about problems; I'm about solutions. Burke is neither a 'vigilante' nor a solution. But his 'family of choice' is—and therein lies the hope of not just 'surviving' the Beast, but transcending his assaults to become not just personally safe, but a hunter yourself."
Fighting the monsters who prey on children is something beyond simple dedication. It is a calling, a vocation. Only, he says, "the volunteers," can be considered as having a choice. Vachss sees himself as a "draftee." "The draftees have no such choice to be 'dedicated.' I was called when I first met the Beast. I am driven not by love of children but my hatred of those who prey upon them."
Does he believe in God? "I believe that there are barriers we can cross to other planes ... because I have been there. I believe what we do lives on after we are gone. But I have often said, after the years I have spent on this junkyard of a planet, that if there is a God, someone should sue him for malpractice."
Has his war been effective so far? "I leave such judgments to others. I am swimming at the horizon with my work, and will drown before I reach it. But there is another wave coming behind me, and another behind that. I already get far more credit than I deserve for changes that have been made. It's not who strikes the final blow which topples the wall, it's that all the preceding blows weakened it to that state of readiness."
Vachss sees himself simply as "a man. A man who is going to die trying."
But, then again, although Vachss' fictional men (and women) strive even more strongly against evil than their literary progenitor can in real life, they are seldom simple. And there's always a fascinating, complex story involved with their life and death struggle to "try." One can't help but guess that Andrew Vachss is much the same.
Originally published at Horror Online, May 1999.
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