Unleashing the Criminal Mind
By Dave Ford
NEW YORK — A warm Saturday night, just after 10. Times Square is beginning to roll. Pushers rasp, "Dope? Crack?" A skeletal regular dressed in dumpster chic staggers down the neon-splattered sidewalk on 42nd Street between Seventh and Eight. Must be a businessman: He's speaking into a cellular phone.
Suddenly, four youths dash past startled strollers. Two cops chase them, snatch one. Cuff him. A crowd gathers. Three more cops that missed the action as they shot the breeze across the street huff and puff over. "Go home!" one shouts. "Fun's over." The crowd fades, eyes alert. Back to the two-minutes-for-a-quarter video booths.
This is "the cesspool," the focus of 47-year-old New York lawyer and author Andrew Vachss' riveting crime novels "Flood," "Strega," "Blue Belle" and "Hard Candy." Last month, Alfred A. Knopf released "Blossom," a searing thriller plumbing the bent psyche of a Midwestern serial killer. It's a coolly terrifying journey into the shadow sub-levels of the criminal mind.
Tell him his books are hard, and Vachss (rhymes with "facts") snorts, "This is a hard world. I can't understand people reading my books and saying this is wildly exaggerated. I mean, live here for a week."
Seated in his downtown office, Vachss looks decidedly un-lawyer-ish. A piratic black patch cloaks his right eye (which he lost in a childhood fight). A tousled, graying mop washes over the collar of a loose linen blazer. A green sweatshirt, baggy pants, shiny boots and a rakish scarf complete the comfortably disheveled ensemble. His ruggedly handsome face is less fierce than photographs suggest: Angled cheek-bones slope to a softening, stubble-peppered chin.
But Vachss talks the way he writes—hard. The reflexive sentence-capping "right?" is purely rhetorical—Vachss knows he's on the money every time. His stinging stare both invites and dares a listener to disagree. He has a lawyer's linear mind: quick, angular, accustomed to juggling opposing ideologies. He conveys not the philosophical meandering of a dreamy professor, but the jackhammer rhetoric of a street-smart shark short on time and patience for anything but the truth.
Like everything else in Andrew Vachss' life, that truth is hard. His 14-year-old New York law practice specializes in youth advocacy. Among other roles, he's a "law guardian," paid by the state to represent children in abuse, neglect or delinquency cases. He faces a daily diet of incest, child rape and family violence.
"These (novels) are based in one way or another on facts," he says in a cigarette-scratched rasp. "Largely they're a product of memory more than of any creative effort."
Probe that memory, and with a you-asked-for-it glare he spits out a stomach- turning litany of sexual deviance, including this: "Guy with a record for violent assault that wouldn't fit on 10 pages is a counselor at a center for runaway girls. When he's done playing with those girls, he attempts to rape his own daughter. She resists. He ruptures both her eardrums with punches. She has four abortions before she's 14. Nobody asks any questions." He waits two beats for effect. "He's the perpetrator of it all."
He stubs out a cigarette in a big glass ashtray on his glass-top desk. Empties the ashtray, as he does after every cigarette—a man used to cleaning up burned-out waste.
Vachss first ran across grisly child abuse cases nearly 30 years ago, when he tracked syphilis carriers for the Ohio Department of Public Health. After several stints in the criminal justice system—including managing a troubled Massachusetts juvenile facility—Vachss "wanted a way to preach my particular gospel to a much bigger congregation."
So he wrote his first novel in the early '70s. Undaunted by rejection slips, Vachss ripped through law school in his early 30s and established his private practice. When Donald I. Fine finally picked up "Flood" in the early '80s, Vachss suddenly started a literary roll.
His law practice introduced him to pedophiles—adults sexually attracted to children. Like serial killers, pedophiles, Vachss says, are incapable of discerning the harm they do. "I've never heard of a pedophile, in all the years I've been doing this, who volunteered for treatment," he says. "Unless he was arrested, indicted, or about to be. It does not bother them, what they do."
Pedophilia raises societal hackles like almost no other taboo-breaking behavior. Pedophiles tout the desirability of consenting adult/child sex—sometimes in articulate and footnote-heavy academic tracts.
"The intellectual pedophile (has) every piece of justificatory language," Vachss says hotly. "They use their natural intellect and their natural gifts of gab. It's retro language. 'I'm gonna do what I want to do, and when I'm done, I'll come up with a good way to tell you about it.'"
In Vachss' books, Burke, the first-person protagonist, constantly saws away at one branch of the pedophile tree: child pornography. In "Flood," he pursues a Times Square porn store: "I found the back section marked Adults Only. Maybe the boss had a sense of irony—it had nothing but pictures of kids, books about kids, and magazines with kids."
Vachss says child pornography has become a "cottage industry" thanks to burgeoning technology. "The Polaroid camera was the first quantum leap. Now you can go to a video store and walk out with the kind of equipment that can produce a technologically better product than Cecil B. De Mille made in the '50's."
Those most damaged by child pornography, of course, are the children themselves. In "Strega," Burke recovers a pornographic photograph of a child so the boy's therapist can burn it in front of him—a kind of catharsis.
"This business about kiddie porn being the death of the soul is true," Vachss says. "Because they feel imprisoned forever and just can't get out from under it."
Vachss' stripped-down writing is crisp, stark, sharp—and darkly humorous. His fictional alter ego, Burke, is a chain-smoking, blues-loving ex-con. He's a cynically moral and supremely paranoid scam artist who specializes in eviscerating baby rapers and child porn merchants—the "freaks" and "maggots" who populate the "rancid underbelly" of a city full of "ambulatory psychopaths, choking on ethno-insanity."
Burke lives in a protectively booby-trapped office with a fierce mastiff named Pansy. A state-raised orphan, he's bolstered by a curious amalgam of criminal friends. Though hard, however, Burke's no sociopath.
"He has too much feeling for other people," Vachss says. "He desperately wants this idea of family—not biological family, because he'll never know it, but family of choice."
Burke's overweening sadness, his protective paper smokescreens (he lives under a host of aliases), his lack of ambition and his gut-scalding loneliness render a familiar portrait. Says Vachss: "He's supposed to be—although I never articulate this clearly, because that's not my style—the prototypical child abuse survivor."
Flatlands of Indiana
In "Blossom," Burke leaves the familiar sewers of New York for the Blue Velvet flatlands of Indiana, where picket fences camouflage killers. Repaying a debt to a former cell mate whose son has been wrongly suspected of murdering couples in a lover's lane, Burke hunts down the real killer—a "piquerist" who derives sexual satisfaction from penetrating his victims by sniper fire.
Why remove Burke from New York? "For two reasons," Vachss said. "One, I was interested in the intellectual exercise of how a survivor survives outside his home turf. Two, I wanted to write about a piquerist, and you could not have such a person running around the canyons of New York."
The book also allows Vachss to elucidate a pet theory: criminals—from penny-ante rough-off artists to serial killers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacey— are made, not born.
"There's a very specific formula for creating a monster," Vachss says. "It starts with chronic, unrelenting (abuse). There's got to be societal notification and then passing on. The child eventually believes that what's being done to (him) is societally sanctioned. And after a while, empathy—which we have to learn, we're not born with it—cracks and dies. He feels only his own pain. There's your predatory sociopath."
That's why Vachss posed for a recent publicity photo cradling his pit bull puppy. "You know what pit bulls are capable of, right?" he asks, referring to the animal's notorious killer reputation. "But they're also capable of being the most wonderful, sweet pets in the world depending on how you raise them. That's all our children."
Constant exposure to brutal humans, a reputation as a fearsome child advocate and publicity obligations surrounding his writing all have taken their toll. Vachss is on his third marriage (he has no kids). He lives somewhere in Queens (he won't say where) in a house booby-trapped to foil bitter opponents who've extended death threats. Like Burke, he has a mastiff—and three other vicious dogs.
And like Burke, he's momentarily burning out. "I'm gonna do the next book, then stop for a while," he says. "I've been working seven days for several years."
Will Burke go out in a blaze of glory? "No, I don't think I'm just gonna blow up the whole series," Vachss says. What'll he do? "Put him in jail. That seems like the most logical thing." Then what? "Soon's I feel halfway decent I'll take another shot."
He stubs out another cigarette and glares knowingly: "I've got enough material to go on forever."
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