Raging Against Abuse
By Gene Williams, Times Staff Writer
ANDREW VACHSS has a painful jaw abscess that has, he explains, "exploded," and he's more than a little weary from a grueling 16-city book tour, and, frankly, he's not altogether pleased he can't yet check into his room at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco, so the news that a photographer has not shown up for this hastily arranged interview doesn't exactly displease him.
In fact, it almost makes him happy, or at least as happy as he ever gets. No photographer means Vachss won't be asked to pose in front of some ugly statue, or fiddle with some ridiculous prop, or, thank God, smile.
Andrew Vachss doesn't smile. Not for the camera, anyway. Ever.
"What I do, it's not appropriate to smile," he says. "I'm so associated with the issues, it would almost be obscene to be smiling."
What Vachss does, through his New York law practice and successful writing career, is conduct a passionate, if sometimes lonely, crusade to protect children against what he calls the "predators" of the world. Dedicated to representing battered and tortured children, he is horrified at the evil men do and morally outraged that more people aren't as involved as he in this "holy war." What, he wants to know, is there to smile about?
"Of course I'm angry," he admits when I tell him, carefully, that he seems to be chronically enraged. "Because what I'm angry about continues. Kids are still at risk."
Hatred for Predators
The irony here is that Vachss (rhymes with wax) has no particular kinship for children one way or another. In fact, Vachss, 55, has no children of his own. Though married three times, he had a vasectomy years ago that, he says, continues to work very well.
"I love some children, some of them I don't," he says with a matter-of-fact shrug of his bony shoulders. "Generically, I wouldn't tell you I like dogs, because some of them I do and some of them I don't. When men say they love women, what they're really saying is they love the species, not every woman. It's impossible to love them all.
"I've never said that what I do is because I have a particular love of children. What I have is a particular hatred for predators."
Call it what you will, love or hate, Vachss has a mission: Protect the innocent, damn the guilty. His books, featuring a violent, anti-social ex-con named Burke, are dark and gritty and written to drag you by the throat, kicking and screaming if necessary, into his brooding world.
Vachss will say just about anything, do just about anything, to make his point.
Painful Object Lesson
For instance, the soft brace he sports on his right wrist is the result of punching a wall in court.
"I was trying to show how a child's pelvis could be fractured with one blow," he says, his voice deep and mordant in the quiet of the Ritz Carlton's tea room. "I'd hit that same wall before to great effect, but this time I was unlucky enough to hit a stud. The wrist broke, and now it can dislocate almost on its own, so I wear the brace."
By the looks of him, Vachss has suffered more damage from fighting his war than a loopy wrist. His features, all hard angles and sharp edges, appear gaunt and drawn, and his good left eye (he wears a patch over the right as the result of a childhood injury) appears sunken and darkly rimmed. His hair is graying and, on this day anyway, shaggily unkempt. Though some women find this look sexy—"If you want women to think you're sexy, protect children. It's the only true G-spot in the whole world"—it nonetheless is the expression of a man who has seen too much depravity.
And, he has.
Early in his career, he was working for the U.S. Public Health Service, tracking sexually transmitted diseases, when he discovered just how cruel people can be to one another.
"I thought I was a tough kid, seen what there was to see," says Vachss, who grew up in an economically challenged New York neighborhood. "But I never knew people raped babies. I could describe it if you like, but it was ugly. And I saw this over and over again until I reached a stage of rage."
Reaching the Jury
His law practice helped release some of that pent-up fury, but not enough. So he began writing his Burke novels, which are the hardest-boiled fiction this side of Raymond Chandler.
"I wanted a bigger jury than I could find in a courthouse," he says, taking a sip of hot chocolate and wincing in pain. "My first book was a textbook that not a whole lot of people read. It never reached the public the way I'd hoped. So I decided to do another book and take out the footnotes."
That first novel, "Flood," exceeded Vachss' wildest dreams.
"My absolute fantasy was that I could make $30,000 a year in some fashion writing so I could maintain my practice and not do criminal work," he says.
"Flood" did that and more, but, he maintains, it wasn't a very good book.
"It was way overwritten. I thought it was going to be a one-round fight so I threw every punch I had."
But it wasn't a short fight. Vachss has gone on to write 10 other books starring Burke, including his newest, "Safe House," which examines one of the most dangerous of all predators—the domestic abuser who stalks his victim.
It's a typically brutal Vachss novel, out there at ground zero, as he likes to call it. In it, Burke works his way into an underground organization trying to protect stalking victims and is soon caught up with a white supremacist group. As always, it's a fascinating read, filled with tough talk, rough action and gritty scenes that make you flinch the way you might if you suddenly came upon a bloodied body laying in the street.
Some critics call Vachss' books too violent, and Hollywood, which keeps optioning the rights only to return them, finds the novels "too dark." Vachss doesn't much give a damn. He's out to recruit soldiers for the war, and if critics don't understand that, well, that's their problem.
"What do I care what one twit has to say?" he asks. "We're there, at ground zero, seeing things. Critics don't see anything. They claim to like noir, real things, but they wouldn't know something real if they saw it.
"Bottom line, they haven't been able to kill the books. They're printed in a dozen languages, and I keep writing them."
On the topic of writing, he brushes off a question about his ability with the wave of his hand.
"It's never been a focal point," he says. "I know Vanilla Ice sold more records with one album than Muddy Waters did in a lifetime. I know talented writers who can't get published. I don't know how to rate (my ability). I know this. If it doesn't sell, they don't pay you to do another one."
Writing isn't a Priority
Like his attitude, Vachss' writing style differs from most authors. He first writes the book entirely in his head and, when ready, types it out on a computer, fitting the writing around his law practice, lectures, investigations and consulting.
"I've never had the luxury of saying, 'today I will write exclusively,'" he says. "Writing isn't a priority with me."
He also doesn't enjoy it much and doesn't buy all that malarkey about writing for the sheer enjoyment of it.
"I subscribe to my father's theory that the reason people pay you to do something is that otherwise, you wouldn't do it."
This brings a wisp of a smile to his thin lips, but like an artist's tracing, it is faint and subtle.
Proving, I guess, that he finds some enjoyment in life.
"I'm happy in the pursuit of what's important to me," he says. "It takes very little to make some people happy. And I have moments of happiness that most lugs will never have. Saving a child's life now that's something that makes me happy."
If not something that makes him smile.
Originally published in the Contra Costa Times, May 24, 1998.
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