Trying to Get Away
by Adam Dunn
"We'll use the back room." Andrew Vachss leads the way through a nondescript bar, reached after a labyrinthine drive down rain-slicked streets. It is not yet noon and heavyset men are already lining up for beer. Since their attention is focused on the sports action on the overhead TV, they don't notice the intense man with the eye patch slipping into a storage room off the kitchen, where he quietly shuts the door. No pat down comes, surprisingly; perhaps Vachss feels airport security has actually done its job.
This is not a movie. After a lifetime pursuing and prosecuting serial offenders, Vachss displays the innate caution that people outside of law enforcement (or the military) might label paranoia.
No reader of Vachss, novice or devotee, would be surprised that he's written a new novel laced with themes of crime, punishment and innocence lost. But there have been rumblings through the book world and beyond about his new novel The Getaway Man. That it's not a Burke book. That it's a Vintage trade paperback instead of a Knopf hardcover. That it looks more like a dime pulp novel from the 1950s than a slick 21st-century Bertelsmann product. That it's set in rural Southern locales ("Appalachia, more than Southern," he corrects). That it's less a crime novel and more a thriller—no, that's not right. Just what kind of book is it anyway? A romance. A romance?
"It's not a bodice-ripper, obviously," Vachss explains, in a voice that sounds like an especially lucid 45 r.p.m. recording playing on 33. "This is a story about an innocent man who maintains his innocence, and the purity of that innocence, through a whole series of life experiences, and finding what he believes to be love. Look at the sacrifices he makes for it. It's a love story. It's got other elements, but how could you call it a thriller?"
The Getaway Man is the story of Eddie, a survivor of the "kiddie camps" (aka reform school), who has made his way up the crime world's food chain to become the wheelman for a professional stick-up crew. Eddie walks a fine line between the crew chief, a hard case named JC who Eddie knows from prison, and JC's enigmatic girlfriend, Vonda, who shows more interest in Eddie than the criminal code would permit.
What's most unusual about Eddie's story is that he tells it himself. Only one of Vachss's other novels, Shella, shifts the narrator's voice to a damaged child's point of view. But the protagonist of that book, Ghost, is cut from the same cloth as Burke. Eddie has been drawn as a far more approachable (and likable) protagonist than any of his predecessors.
"It was my belief that you can do the classic, very moving crime story in such a way that it was a novel, rather than the reverse," says Vachss. "I wanted to do something that happened in real time almost, where you can actually engage with the character. People who identify with Burke identify with some things that he does, but not with him directly. But I wanted to write a novel—that I knew people would call a thriller or something else—that actually goes back to the days when novels appeared in that form. Many novels in which crimes were committed were about larger things. That was my goal with this. [And] I wanted to do that in as few words as I could."
The result, from its slimness to its signature Richie Fahey noir-styled cover, is a package radically different from the Burke line, as well as Vachss's other writing forays (such as Hard Looks, his collaboration with Dark Horse Comics). To begin with, there's the look of the book, which hearkens back to an earlier breed of crime novel. "The cover is intended to get right in your face and tell you, 'This is what I'm about.'" Vachss says. "I don't like the term 'pulp' because I think it's overbroad. I think there are people who wrote, for example, for Gold Medal in the '50s and '60s, who were some of America's best writers. I think there's been a sort of class distinction between paperback and hardcover that I don't hold with. That style of writing can sometimes be clearer and cleaner and purer than the sort of overwritten literature that people seem to ascribe to the best kind of novels. In other words, you're compared to Chandler instead of Cain, and I don't mean James M., I mean Paul."
The cover, along with the book's intricate story line, has apparently thrown some reviewers off track ("One reviewer said this was a book about a kid who was in love with stealing cars. I felt like I'd been hit in the head with a hammer"), and Vachss hopes this forum will clarify his message to readers. "Eddie doesn't want to steal anything," he declares. "His vision of the end of the road is not living in Vegas with cashmere suits and rooms full of hookers—he wants to be the driver, so he can actually go someplace." Eddie's one guiding vision is of himself at the wheel of a phantom car, a metaphor for asserting control over a life that has been hitherto guided by the forces of crime and punishment. "He's not a criminal in his heart. But his every bonding experience has been in crime." Eddie's heart beats for driving with a passion that borders on the sexual: "It felt like there was a wire running from my hands direct into the front wheels, like I was bending my own body around those curves." And unlike Burke, "Eddie stays innocent. He's not somebody who becomes a perpetrator."
Time (and sales figures) will tell if The Getaway Man is the start of a viable new direction for Vachss. But all the criteria are there: the new approach to character and story arc; the distinctively designed package; and the new format (with its lower price point). And Eddie's shy, boyish openness (compared to Burke's bitter, middle-aged paranoia) may be just the ticket, in the words of Vachss's Vintage editor, Edward Kastenmeier, to "bring readers back to Andrew."
Adam Dunn is a freelance writer, editor and agent, who contributes regularly to PW, CNN.com and the San Francisco Chronicle. He lives in New York City.
© 2003 Reed Business Information.
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