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Suffer The Children

Andrew Vachss is not your average American lawyer. Nor is he your average crime writer. His ultra-violent thrillers are set in the underbelly of urban America, but—like his work in the courts—they are also part of a long, personal crusade against child abuse. There's a message on his mean streets.

By John Williams
Originally published in The Face, January 1989

Julio loves my dog, her name is Pansy and she's a Neapolitan mastiff—about 140 pounds of vicious muscle and dumb as a brick. If her entire brain was high-quality cocaine, it wouldn't retail for enough cash to buy a decent meal. But she knows how to do her work, which is more than you can say for a lot of fools who went to Harvard. (Strega)

Andrew Vachss photograph for THE FACE by Joseph AstorI'M MAKING SMALL TALK with Andrew Vachss in his office eighteen floors above Broadway. "You're English," he says. "'I love the English; you like dogs …" On one wall are photographs of his dogs: a Rotweiler attack hound pictured leaping, teeth bared, at the camera; a Neapolitan mastiff resembling a panther on steroids. "Better than a gun," he comments. "Dogs don't rust."

With the publication of Blue Belle, his third novel, Vachss' publishers are marketing him as "the natural successor to Hammett and Chandler". This is the literary equivalent of being the new Velvet Underground and is similarly applied endlessly to a stream of no-talent copyists. Andrew Vachss is different. For a start, his books do not feature a battered private investigator with a borderline drink problem and a wry, wisecracking persona. In Vachss' books, world-weary romanticism is replaced by a dexedrine-driven portrait of modern New York as an American shadowland filled with man-made horrors.

In person too, Andrew Vachss is far from typical of modern thriller writers, most of whom seem to be armchair macho men, regular guys with beer guts and bad moustaches. Andrew Vachss is not a regular guy. He is a lawyer who works with children, in particular the victims of abuse. Wiry, Italian and of indeterminate age, he wears an eyepatch and speaks with a voice somewhat distorted by a plate inserted to fix a broken jaw. Vachss reckons it's a jungle out there.

His three novels, Flood, Strega and the latest, Blue Belle, feature the first survivalist private-eye, Burke. "The essence of being a true survivalist is being completely independent, being outside the system. Outlaws make temporary alliances, but it's a rule of the street that if you don't have partners you can't be informed upon."

Vachss is keen to distance his version of survivalism from that practised by the would-be mercenaries who read Soldier Of Fortune and SAS manuals. "The people who run about in survival camps playing soldiers tend to be right-wing, but the urban survivalists tend to be almost apolitical. Anyone interested in Aryan superiority or whatever is not a survivalist, he's a destructionist—a true survivalist is not interested in destroying anybody, just in staying safe."

Burke's cases tend to involve the same kinds of characters his creator deals with in the courtroom: abused children, child pornographers, snuff movie makers. Burke is no social worker; he has no belief in rehabilitating the paedophiles and sadists that he simply refers to as "freaks". Burke's street justice is swift and brutal, but Vachss is not prepared to accept that this war on the freaks amounts to a Death Wish-style vigilante credo. "He is not a vigilante, he never goes after anyone gratuitously. He is no white knight, he never does anything unless he's compensated. I don't call a vigilante someone who goes after people outside of the law, if he is himself outside of the law."

So how did a lawyer get into writing thrillers? "I wrote a lot of non-fiction (on child abuse) and it struck me that the audience was limited by the genre—it was just reaching a professional audience. The kind of material I'm dealing with needs to be in the public domain, and the best way to do it is through 'fiction'."

As for why he chose thrillers rather than 'serious fiction': "I think what I'm writing is quite serious and has been accepted as such, but it is about crime. I couldn't write a poem about kiddie pornography. Perhaps my vocabulary is closer to the gutter than the ivory tower, but it doesn't mean I'm not serious about what I'm doing."

Vachss is, in fact, deadly serious. He is less concerned with discussing his work as a writer than talking about his writing as one part of a personal crusade against child abuse. The objection which can be made to Vachss' furious and graphic fiction is that in dealing with such taboo areas in a popular medium the writer involves himself in voyeurism and complicity with the exploitation he condemns.

He weighs this and replies. "I think that any time you write about evil and you write about it accurately you risk replicating it. If you write about child pornography, you risk depicting it in such a way that it could be titillating to those interested in such a subject. But I think if you are not willing to come close to the line, you don't come very close to reality."

I suggest that his attack on the Times Square sex-trade reads like a promo for the pro-censorship lobby.

"My position on pornography is quite simple. You can argue about Penthouse or Playboy or things of that ilk. But child pornography, a picture of a child engaged in a sexual act, is a photograph of a crime and you cannot argue about that. It is, per se, illegal, illicit and immoral. It is unfortunate that my work is taken up by people with whom I am not allied.

"For example, if you misread my work—and you'd have to do it deliberately—you could decide that I have an anti-homosexual bias. Which is absolutely untrue: I stand for the proposition that a paedophile and a homosexual are two different creatures entirely, yet there are people who are homophobic who seize on my work and say that this is homosexuality run amok. It's no such thing anymore than someone molesting a little girl is heterosexuality run amok."

NEW YORK, IN VACHSS' NOVELS, is portrayed as something close to hell. Characteristically literal, he comments, "In respect of some of its inhabitants it is hell. I think to be an abused child in New York is to be in hell, yes. I think to be a teenage prostitute in New York is to be in hell, yes. I think it is an unsafe place, I don't think people feel safe on the subway and I don't think they feel safe in their houses. I think if you go to the places I depict, like the Hunt's Point junkyard, they are dangerous. If you cruise around Times Square at night, unarmed, you're a damn fool. I think New York is gonna be a city where you will have to be very rich or very poor, it's gonna be a rich person's playground, a tourist attraction."

Vachss began his career as an investigator for the Federal Government, tracking down chains of sexually-transmitted diseases. "That naturally led one to children and naturally made you sick. I'm not a naive person. I was raised on these streets and I still didn't believe that someone would have sex with a nine-month-old baby. But a nine-month-old baby with rectal gonorrhea answers that question. Ever since, my life has followed a thematic direction: social worker, community organiser, director of a maximum security prison, a mission to Biafra during the war, running a re-entry program for ex-felons … all before I went to Law School. And I went to Law School with the malice aforethought of only representing children. Because many of the teenagers that I had in the prison really came there because of what was done to them before they did to others."

So it wasn't a case of Vachss having been, himself, abused? "I grew up on the west most fringe of Little Italy. My mother raised me alone during the war and when my father returned … my father was a horribly abused child and the abuse only stopped when he reached his full size. My father made up his mind he would never use violence against children. Though he was a violent man—if you met him in a bar he'd knock you down. But no, not only was I not abused, compared to my peers I was utterly coddled."

To Vachss, his books are propaganda as much as entertainment. "What is possible is that people who read for entertainment may become educated as to certain realities of life, that people will become angry, that they will want to find a place to put their anger and will put pressure on the judicial and legislative systems so that there can be some significant changes in the way we treat our children. That is possible and to some extent has been achieved, though not as much as I'd like."

AS ENTERTAINMENT, Andrew Vachss' novels are fast, modern and funnier than you might expect. They feature a credible version of The Last Gang In Town in the shape of Burke and his associates: Max the silent Mongolian black belt; Prof the black ex-con who lives on the street; and Michelle, a halfway transsexual prostitute. His cast of characters are the underside of Jesse Jackson's rainbow coalition, outlaws of all races, sexes and political persuasions.

In Blue Belle, just out in the States, Burke is variously allied with a Puerto Rican urban guerilla, a Zionist electronics expert, a Harlem pimp, and Belle herself, an outsize stripper running from an incestuous home in the Deep South.

Belle is the third in the series of women who give the books their titles. Burke women are no Bond girls. The first and best, Flood, is a martial arts mistress with a yen for revenge; short, powerful and tattooed. The second, Strega, is the lost girl from a Mafia family looking out for herself in a tangle of double-crosses. Belle is the least of the trio, a big, soft girl who is prepared to sacrifice all for Burke.

Vachss is provocative, a writer with a tarantula in a paperweight on his desk, a crusader who has written at least two authentically tough novels of New York now. In comparison Blue Belle is something of a disappointment, prone to tough-guy sentimentality. At best, though, in Flood and Strega, Andrew Vachss is the master of the modern thriller genre.

© 1989 The Face.


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