Author, child advocate, attorney Andrew Vachss discusses realism, the court and crime
by Robert Masterson
I spent some time speaking with author, attorney and child advocate Andrew Vachss recently. Vachss can be an illusive character; contact is allowed only through an intermediary who passes messages while one waits for a return call from an unknown location. Vachss' website provides an intriguing portrait of its subject which somehow manages to remain enigmatic. What follows are excerpts from that conversation:
FW: We read your bio, we read what you're writing, we know you're an attorney—and you're still practicing, right?
AV: Sure. But, the source of the basic knowledge you see expressed in my books did not come from being a lawyer. My background prior to becoming a lawyer is more important.
FW: But one of the ways you've chosen to work in the world, to express yourself in the world, is as a lawyer.
AV: That's just not me and I don't have much respect for lawyers who use the profession as a way of expressing themselves. My job is protecting children. It's not about my ego, how I express myself, but how well I express what that child needs. If you mean that this is how I express myself as a human being through conduct, sure. But the lawyering itself, to me, is merely a technique.
FW: There is a kind of anti-flamboyance to your persona of writer. There is the distance, the mystery surrounding who you actually are, the drama and the glamour ... you cut a striking figure with the dogs and eyepatch.
AV: Yeah, yeah. That's why Glamour magazine did their piece. But the bottom line is that I believe everyone expresses themselves through their behavior.
FW: Where's the intersection between that aspect of your life and your work as a child advocate?
AV: Well, you can't separate them, especially in the Burke books. The Burke books are merely an organic extension of the work I do every day. If you like the term, they're propaganda. Too many people get their quote-unquote information about crime and the genisis of crime from the movies, for God's sake. And those are the same people that sit on juries. So, it has been my mission from the beginning to provide information of actual value and actual truth. So I wrote about modem traffic and trading in child pornography back in 1987 and book reviewers went all beserk asking how I could make up such horrible stuff. And that's been my history throughout. So the point there is that there's not just an intersection, there is a merger. Throughout my career, people have praised me for my knowledge of the "dark side" and my knowledge of "evil," but what I've tried to explain with [The Getaway Man] is that you can't truly understand evil unless you truly understand innocence. And I really felt that I needed to write a book about an innocent man who is, in some ways, connected to the things I've spent my whole life doing. People do not get hit in the head with tire irons and then get up five seconds later to start searching for clues. There are no safeties on revolvers ... The public does not distinguish beween chronic and professional. So we get people who committed a hundred 7-11 stick-ups and they are called a professional robber. Whereas, the person who never got caught ... when I was a kid coming up, the burglar who got respect was certainly not the freak who found a woman sleeping in her bed and then raped her while he was there. It was the guy who could slip the wedding ring off her finger without waking her up.
FW: The best crimes are never even detected as being criminal acts. No one ever notices the money is missing and probably white-collar, coporate criminals are the best at this kind of confidance game.
AV: Yes. And to this chronic class of criminal, armored cars are the zenith. It's as high as they go. They're not exactly able to pull off a wire fraud or take over Enron. Untraceable wealth on wheels ... enough money can make a change in any person's status.
FW: Isn't that absolutely true?
AV: Yes. That's how they spell "justice"—Just Us. We're the only ones being taken away. Leaving aside the degenerates, freaks and lunatics, I've never met a working criminal who didn't believe that the guy with briefcase wasn't a bigger thief than the guy with the gun. I never met a working criminal who didn't believe that life is a lottery. Everybody steals, everybody commits crimes but only certain people get caught. There is a kind of Darwinism here in that you better perfect your craft ... You know how literature romanticizes the lone wolf? That's the reverse of reality. In nature, the lone wolf is the one who's been exiled from the pack. It's not a place the wolf wants to be and it's not a place humans want to be. I don't think there are any "bad seeds," I don't think nature has anything to do with it, but people would love to say that there is nothing we can do. People want designer genes so we can isolate the gene for serial killers or rapists or arsonists. Not only would that satisfy liberals who don't want to blame anybody for anything, but it satisfies right-wingers as well because they're all eugenicists at heart ... Don't you think that if Mary Jones in East Harlem snaps her infant's arm and brings it to the ER, that she's going to be reported to child protections services? Do you think that someone in New Caanan is guaranteed to be reported? I don't. These are just other forms of gated communities, but the gates work a little differently ... If we accept the fact that the best single propeller of criminality is child abuse, then we accept that the stronger and earlier we intervene with effective child protection services the less we will later have to spend on criminal justice services.
Drive, He Wrote
Book Review By Robert Masterson
Those of us familiar with Andrew Vachss fall into two categories. We are either acquainted with his work as an author of both fiction and nonfiction (most probably with his novels featuring the supreme anti-antihero B.B. Burke or his essays on personal responsibility and child abuse) or we've somehow had contact with him when he's served the court as a lawyer representing children, as a social worker, as an investigator of sexually transmitted disease or as the director of a youth prison facility. Any way it happens, it can be a disturbing experience.
Vachss' fiction has been lauded as uber-noir, as the ultimate in hard-boiled prose. Terse, spare and lean, Vachss' prose is seamless, a deceptively quick read that never draws attention to itself but carries heavy freight to the reader. Vachss' fiction is unlike the mainstream of crime, mystery or procedural genre fiction, and The Getaway Man continues that pattern.
There is very little brooding in this (or any Vachss) book. Vachss' characters don't spend much time standing on rain-drenched streets during dark nights of the soul to ponder the meanings of life. Instead, Vachss characters are acted upon and react.
The protagonist of this 200-page novel is what academics call an "unreliable narrator." Eddie is a child of the state, raised in juvenile institutions after his penchant for driving (other people's automobiles) leads him to the attention of the authorities. Eddie, however, is not a thief. Eddie's interest in driving cars is pure, innocent and speaks to a need for control and movement he is otherwise denied. His favorite movie is Vanishing Point (and that is enough to prove him blessed). His clear simplicity carries over into the rest of Eddie's life and, often taken for and ignored as an "retard," his observations tell us more than Eddie himself can understand about the world in which he lives, the rules that confine him and the opportunities that seem to offer peace.
Like most of Vachss' characters, Eddie has created a family based on love and trust rather than biology. His natural parents make no appearance in the book; Eddie's morals and values (such as they are) were acquired both because of and in spite of his various incarcerations.
"Every outfit needs a getaway man," Eddie says in the opening paragraph of the novel. "It doesn't matter how smooth the job goes; if you don't get away with the money, it was all for nothing."
Whether or not getting away is something even possible is a question at the heart of The Getaway Man. There is a caper, a criminal's wet-dream retirement score. There is triple-cross betrayal and there is inevitability to Eddie's life that he can neither perceive nor prevent. There is also loyalty and love and self-sacrifice. There is an affirmation that such things are worthwhile and, at the very least, are better than any alternative.
What there isn't, is a lot of adjectives.
Copyright © 2003 New Mass Media. All rights reserved.
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