American Psychos: Clayton Moore's review of Haiku
Originally posted at Bookslut, October 2009
Sometimes a break from a series can be not only a diversion, but a downright epiphany. That's been my experience with the non-sequential novels of Andrew Vachss. Don't get me wrong -- I do like a good Burke novel now and again, and last year's series-capping novel Another Life was a sweet ending to a killer series. But somehow I've always found more satisfaction in the writer's alternative work, maybe because the non-necessity of sticking to the familiar tends to lead him in interesting directions.
That was the case with The Getaway Man, the book that wound up introducing me to him back in 2003, and one that's so unswerving and brittle that it would have made a fine addition to the pulp paperbacks of Hard Case Crime, had the line existed back then. Two Trains Running let Vachss run rampant over his own version of American history, one that's only so disturbing and strange because unlike Ellroy, Vachss' version of events are nearly always based in utter, unbelievable truth.
Similarly, it's nice to see the author let loose in his latest experiment, Haiku, whose primary message takes shape not from the recesses of some high-concept inspiration but from the very real dumping of the homeless onto America's streets in increasingly high numbers due to local budget crises.
An ensemble piece, Haiku introduces a host of fascinating characters, a loose association of homeless men who have bonded together out of necessity, struggling to survive not only the streets but their own idiosyncratic personalities. They include Michael, a former financial gambler who lost it all and lives in worship of the unattainable sure thing that will save him; Lamont, an ex-convict and sometimes street bard; Target, who can only speak in rhyming gibberish; Brewster, who sells his meds to feed his compulsion for books; and Ranger, a veteran who is "always in-country," adapting his perceptions of the world to suit his surroundings and his sense of self.
Their unique personalities lend a terrific diversity to the book and they're all captured in bursts of poetic, minimalist prose and profane exchanges of dialogue by Ho, an outcast sensei who is, as he explains, not what he seems.
My name is not Ho. I entered this world without a name. I had no more need of a name than I had of a title.
It was Ranger who named me. I encountered him within several weeks of beginning my walk. Typically, I would hover around the fringes of one group or another. Not seeking admission, but looking for . . . I did not know what. One night, a man walked up to a group standing around aimlessly, waiting for darkness to blanket the city before seeking places to sleep in safety. I watched as, one by one, each person within the group detached himself.
"How come you aren't pulling out?" the man I later came to know as Ranger asked me.
"I am still trying to understand why the others departed," I replied.
"I'm a fucking psycho," he said, as if by way of explanation.
Certainly there's a narrative purpose behind the prose, a "Trojan Horse," as Vachss likes to refer to his subliminal efforts -- Andrew never does anything without a reason. But it's also elegant, and sad, and funny all at the same time, and at a sleek 211 pages, it's a welcome addition to a chilly fall evening.
And that's where I'll leave you, with cynics and psychos, iconoclasts and fallen saints. If that's not America, I don't know what is.
Clayton Moore sides with Mark Twain when it comes to patriotism. He seeks refuge from the scoundrels at claywriting.blogspot.com.