Vachss Wants to Upset, Anger Readers of Latest Book
By Regis Behe
Andrew Vachss does not want readers to finish his novels and think they've read a good book. He does not want to hear that his latest effort, Pain Management, was hard to put down.
There's one emotion, and one emotion only, that Vachss wants to elicit from readers: anger.
"I want a lot more than the standard goals for a book," he says, "because people aren't going to do anything unless they're angry. I'm writing for a reason, and while I accept the fact that there has to be a certain amount of entertainment content to keep people reading until the end, it's like marbling in the fat of a good piece of steak: You want them to swallow the whole thing."
Vachss, who will visit Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont on Saturday, has long been an advocate for abused children. A practicing attorney whose clients are all children, Vachss has used his series featuring the single-named Burke to rail against all forms of child abuse: incest, child pornography and prostitution, or, simply, the misplacement of trust.
In Pain Management, the crime against a teen-age girl named Rosebud seems relatively benign: She runs away from home after losing trust in her father when he exhibits signs of betraying colleagues and friends from the 1960s. But Vachss stridently warns against creating a scale that measures degrees of mistreatment.
"From where I stand in my experience over many years, emotional abuse can be deeper and longer-scarring and, ultimately, more damaging than any other form," he says. "Incest is an abuse of trust. Any form of child abuse is an abuse of trust because of the biological relationship, if nothing else."
Vachss' hostility was sparked years ago while he was employed as an investigator for the U.S. Public Health Service. The horrors he saw—including a baby with venereal disease—caused him to embark on the crusade that has consumed him for the past 30 years.
Writing takes up only 10 percent, perhaps 15 percent, of his time; the rest is devoted to his child advocacy activities and his duties as an attorney.
The struggle has been long and hard, however, for his concerns to be taken seriously.
Along with society's inherent denial of widespread problems of abuse, some critics, he notes, have been especially caustic toward his books.
"What I got from book reviewers was 'What kind of a sick crazy mind would fantasize about such things?'" he says, referring to Strega, which concerned using computer modems for trafficking in child pornography—in 1987, long before the Internet pervaded modern life. "If I wrote the same book now, of course, nobody would say it was a fantasy."
Vachss' first book, Flood*, penned 25 years ago, also was criticized because of its ending: A young man takes a bagful of weapons into a high school and starts killing people. [*This refers to the first novel Andrew Vachss wrote, A Bomb Built in Hell. Flood was his first published novel.]
"I got these letters about what a wonderful writer I was, how powerful and compelling, but no book could ever conclude as my book did because it was too insane," he says.
"But if you're doing what I'm doing for a living," Vachss says, "you're hearing young people say exactly this to you. So I don't see how reality intrudes on what I do, because what I do is not ripped from today's headlines."
Pain Management also deals with what he calls the "barbaric, counterproductive attitudes and policies" toward the distribution of drugs to the terminally ill, and the war on drugs in general.
"The conceit behind pain management is that everybody's the same," he says. "If you and I both have stomach cancer, then 50 milligrams of morphine is the right dose for both you and I, as if it was a gas tank that needs to filled and then you're done. That's not only mechanical and moronic, it also borders on the sadistic, because it has to be clear to all those who are participants that some people are not jockeying for more drugs, they're actually not faking those screams, they're in real pain."
Any plot threads, however, are incidental to Vachss' main concern: combating the abuse of children. Vachss has been credited with helping to raise awareness about a subject that was formerly spoken about in hushed tones, but he tends to ignore such praise.
"I get far more credit than I deserve for the changes that have taken place in the past 15 years or so in the attitudes toward child abuse and child protection," he says. "I'm not egotistical to even care about, to extract, my contribution from the contributions of others struggling in the same war."
But Vachss won't mind it a bit if readers fling his novels at a wall in disgust when they reach the final page. That's his mission, accomplished.
For more information on organizations devoted to fighting child abuse, see Vachss' Web site, www.vachss.com.
© 2001 by The Tribune-Review Publishing Co.
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