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Step Into the World of Attorney Vachss With Caution

By Mark Rahner, Seattle Times staff reporter
Originally published in the Seattle Times, November 15, 1999

Andrew Vachss watches as my arm is cranked behind my back and my wrist is bent so that I want to plant my face on the carpet. Urgently.

I tap out—the mercy signal—almost before the submission hold is complete.

I've snuck away from the Northwest Bookfest Saturday with Vachss, the New York attorney who only represents abused children, and whose raw, hard-boiled crime novels place him neck-and neck with James Ellroy as the modern heir of James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett.

We've found an out-of-the-way room at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, where Vachss (you say it like "fax") can watch Texas tough-guy writer and martial artist Joe Lansdale show some moves to a young cop fan. Then Lansdale demonstrates some of them on me.

"See how he's hardly using any strength to do it," Vachss says when we're sitting together in the corner watching Landsale. Vachss shows me a pressure point between the bones of the first and second finger of my right hand that gets my attention with a small jolt of pain.

Vachss holds up his own hand and undulates the bones in it, in a way a human hand shouldn't move. The Famous Hand: he reportedly shattered it against a courtroom wall showing jurors how a child had been hit. It's become a part of the lore surrounding Vachss, along with his eye patch, the heart tattoo on his hand, and his real-life experience running a Massachusetts prison, seeing off-the-scale human horror in social work and obsessively devoting himself to abused children.

Vachss channels all of this into the world of ex-con and vigilante-for-hire, Burke, and his underworld crew of supporting characters: Max, the enormous, silent martial-arts master; The Prof, who dispenses wisdom in rhymes and tutored Burke when they were both behind bars; Mama, the gatekeeper whose Chinese restaurant serves as Burke's office; and Pansy, Burke's fierce, ice-cream-gobbling 140-pound mastiff.

Burke is the hardened product of assorted state institutions, an anti-hero who uses bullets to cut through the bureaucratic tape that keeps human predators on the streets where they can harm other Children of the Secret—what Vachss and Burke call the abused ones. Vachss says some of his characters are amalgams of people he knows; others are drawn more directly from real people, if the people are dead.

Some critics dismiss Vachss as a pulp writer who wallows in ugly detail. This makes him apoplectic.

"What strikes me about (expletive) stupid (expletive) book reviewers," Vachss says, "is they say the books are unreal because they're comparing them to movies, which is their test of reality. I'll never forget the guy who asked me, 'Isn't it a rush to get shot at?'"

But for many readers, his unrelenting grimness, and at times brilliant prose, has made Vachss a favorite, if occasionally guilty, pleasure. And his support has snowballed since his first Burke novel, 1985's "Flood." His latest, "Choice of Evil," finds Burke hunting a serial killer of gay-bashers, and has been optioned for a movie.

"Don't even ask me who I see portraying characters, because you won't like my answer," Vachss says. The answer: Nobody you'd know. "There are actors better than those who are making $8 million, who are never going to get a chance to play," Vachss says. "I'm about meritocracy."

Vachss says that's why he started up Red 71 Press this fall, to publish fledgling writers who might not get a shot otherwise. Its first offering: "The Beggars' Shore," from young Chicago writer Zach Mucha, who leans against a wall watching as I'm brought to my knees with another martial-arts move.

The reason Vachss brought me to this room, he says, is that ego-schmoozing with book people and blabbing about movies makes his eyes glaze. "I probably spend a good 80 percent of my time fighting The War," he says, referring to his law practice.

Vachss is fond of saying that DNA doesn't mean family, just as Burke's family is a chosen one comprised of criminals who are loyal to the death to one another. He notes off-handedly, "The family preservation freaks think I'm Satan. But nobody seems neutral about what I do or even about me. I get the full range, from 'You saved my life' to 'I'm gonna take yours.'"

Later, Vachss tells me he'd signaled Lansdale not to dislocate my shoulder. Step into his world and you're safe, but you'll get your bell rung.

Copyright © 1999 The Seattle Times Company.


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