A Bomb Built in Hell
by Andrew Vachss
"... ticks with the inexorable deliberation of a bomb about to blow."
In 1972, I was represented by the John Schaffner Agency, largely on the strength of some short stories I published in minor magazines.* My first full-length effort was, essentially, the journal I kept during my time in the infamous NYC Welfare Department between 1966 and 1969, ending when I left to enter the warzone inside a country calling itself Biafra.** That book was (as was all my work prior to Flood) considered unacceptable by the publishing establishment, on the grounds that there was no market for "this kind of material."
Victor Chapin, my tireless agent, who never lost faith in me, thought my varied ground–zero experiences (including, by that time, not only the genocidal madness in Africa, but a stint as a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, working as an organizer in Lake County, Indiana, running a center for urban migrants in Chicago, a re–entry joint for ex–cons, and a maximum–security prison for violent youth) would lend themselves perfectly to a "hardboiled" novel of the type that was so successful in the '50s. A Bomb Built in Hell followed.
And (again) was unanimously rejected by publishers. They professed to love the writing, but felt the events depicted were considered a "political horror story" and not remotely realistic. The rejection letters make interesting reading today. Included in the "lack of realism" category were such things as Chinese youth gangs and the fall of Haiti. And, of course, the very idea of someone entering a high school with the intent of destroying every living person inside was just too ... ludicrous.
Naturally, the book was also "too" hardboiled, "too" extreme, "too" spare and violent. I heard endlessly about how an anti–hero was acceptable, but Wesley was just "too" much.
Bomb was meant to be a Ph.D. thesis in criminology without the footnotes, exploring such areas as the connection between child abuse and crime, and the desperate need of unbonded, dangerous children to form "families of choice." Thus, the narrative is third person, and the tone is flat and detached.
Victor, ever–loyal, insisted that there was no dispute about my ability as a writer, but that I needed to add some intimacy to a book everyone called "dry ice." So ... Flood. Same themes, but first–person narrative, interior monologues, fleshed–out backstory, (some) characters with which the reader could identify (and even, presumably, like). Some sense of human connection. But the same themes.
Victor read the manuscript and told me I had finally done it ... we were winners. And then he died. Suddenly and unfairly.
Years later, after Flood came out, offers for Bomb magically appeared. Some from the same publishers who had rejected it the first time. I never took the offers, thinking of the original book as a "period piece." Later, at the suggestion of Knopf publisher (and my editor) Sonny Mehta, I cannibalized pieces of it—Bomb was Wesley's story, Flood was Burke's—for Hard Candy, and Wesley remained a character in the series (despite being dead since Candy) until its 2008 conclusion, Another Life.
Rumors of the original book's existence were sparked by an excerpt published in the HBJ series A Matter of Crime in 1988, edited by Richard Layman.The rumors were true. And how I wish some of the book's predictions had not proven to be so.
I dedicated Flood to Victor Chapin. And I dedicate this to him as well. It's been a long wait, old friend. I hope it reads as well from where you are now.
** Neither the country nor the name survived. Nigeria won. And the world has seen the result.
A BOMB BUILT IN HELL
"History has caught up to Wesley's bleak odyssey, repeatedly rejected for publication decades ago but now unnervingly prescient."—Kirkus (click here to read the entire review)
"[Phil] Gigante uses his voice to paint Vachss' dark portrait with such vivid detail that it makes the novel even that much more shocking. Like a musician finally finding just the right song, Vachss' world is the perfect fit for Gigante, and together they create something special."—The Guilded Earlobe (click here to read the entire audiobook review)
"Andrew Vachss wrote his first novel based on professional experiences dealing with the children of abuse. He couldn't find a publisher because they all felt it was too unrealistic, despite the fact that it was all deeply rooted in the real world; a world he had seen first'hand. But at the time, the collective mindset was that such things just didn't happen. History has proven them wrong, and the book finally found a publisher."—Dagan Books (click here to read the entire article)
Reviewed by Publishers Weekly, Sept 18, 2000
Vachss introduces hardened hit man Wesley in this stinging, disturbing prelude, written in 1973, to his popular Burke outlaw PI series. Serving time for killing a fellow criminal, Wesley meets Carmine Trentoni, who, despite serving a life sentence, remains connected to the outside and who takes Wesley under his wing. Upon leaving prison, Wesley locates Carmine's ally, Mr. Petraglia ("Pet"), and the pair soon are hired to "take out" whomever their clients choose. Exquisite planning, professional technique and sharp intuition guide Wesley and Pet through the murders of an Asian mobster, a competing hit man and a Haitian leader. Each death earns them hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the killers live in nearly complete obscurity in an old shirt factory in Brooklyn. Wesley isn't wholly satisfied with his lot, though, and sets out to make his mark on the world in an unforgettably dire fashion. In many ways, this novel provides a rough template for the Burke series, in which Wesley plays a major role. Vachss's prose, though not as stylized as the writing that would take the mystery world by storm in Flood, is as tight and succinct as Wesley's meticulously planned murders. Every Burke fan should read this novel, which ticks with the inexorable deliberation of a bomb about to blow.
© 2000 Cahners Business Information
Andrew Vachss' pre-Flood novel, A Bomb Built in Hell, was written in 1973.
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