Lawyer-Author Fuels His Fiction With Anger Drawn From Real Life
By Garry Abrams
ANGER is the motor in Andrew Vachss' brain.
It makes him get up at 5 a.m. every day, to go to work in a world where there is "nothing I could make up that would be worse than what happens. Absolutely nothing."
Vachss is a New York lawyer who represents children, mostly in child molestation and abuse cases. He also has spun three sandpaper-rough crime novels—Flood, Strega and the latest, Blue Belle—out of the seamy milieu where the good guys feel lucky if they don't wake up in the slammer.
His brutal portraits of New York's pimps, prostitutes, pedophiles, pornographers and psychopaths have earned him praise as a 1980s version of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. One reviewer wrote that Vachss' fiction is so raw that it makes "Mickey Spillane's exploits read like the minutes of a Harvard Alumni meeting, class of 1920."
Blue Belle—with its plot about the hunt for a killer who has threatened a friend of Burke, the antihero of all three novels—takes the characters through a putrid subworld of snuff films, Times Square sex stores and multiple confrontations on dark city streets. It is on those streets that Burke sometimes metes out vigilante justice to child molesters, often assisted by other criminals.
Vachss—who "dresses better than I have to" for court appearances—can look as if he just came up for air from a lower region where everybody is as tough as titanium and as watchful as a guard dog, of which he owns several. His black eye patch, black leather jacket, black sweat shirt and highly polished black boots—not to mention the tattoo of a tiny heart between thumb and forefinger of one hand—are a standard, almost hackneyed, uniform for passage to the underworld. The patch is real, covering an eye blinded in a dimly remembered youthful confrontation on the streets.
But unlike those of his literary predecessors, Vachss' books are as much manifestoes against social pathology as they are hardboiled fiction. The violent mystery-thrillers are his way of grabbing readers by the throat and shouting in their faces about the evils done to children, he says.
"I don't know how long they're going to let me in the living room, so I want to rearrange the furniture as radically as I can while I'm there."
It takes only a few minutes for the 45-year-old lawyer to establish his relentless singlemindedness during an interview in Los Angeles. "What drives me is real simple, one word: anger. I'm absolutely morally convinced in my mind and my heart that child abuse is a greater cancer in this country than cocaine or communism."
He believes child abuse manufactures sociopaths.
"We could literally head off a Charles Manson at the pass if we chose to do so," he maintains. "The people who scare us so much—the Ted Bundys, the (Lawrence) Singletons—they're not biogenetic mutations," he adds, referring to the recently-executed serial killer and the controversial rapist-mutilator released from a California prison.
"The genetic dice didn't come down the table and say, 'This is what you're going to be.' We make our monsters," he declares.
In line with that theory, Vachss represented the fetus last July in a case in which a pregnant woman was ordered to give up her baby at birth because she had abused or neglected seven previous children.
But don't get the impression that Vachss has a bleeding heart.
"I'm not a liberal," he says. "If you told me Ted Bundy was sexually tortured for years as a child, I wouldn't let him out of prison."
He is so accustomed to the loathsome that he speaks almost offhandedly of the despicable: "I just finished a case where they kept killing mice in front of the kid."
Recalling a time he ran a maximum-security facility for violent juveniles, he says even the victims shy away from the label of child abuse.
"I asked every kid in the joint, 'Were you abused as a child?,'" he said. "Every kid said no. So I grabbed one kid, a kid whose face was half scar tissue and his arm was just dotted with cigarette burns.
"'Now sit down here and tell me you weren't abused as a child.' 'I wasn't abused as a child. My little brother was abused. Momma chopped off his hand.'"
Once, even he was an innocent, says Vachss, who grew up in a tough Manhattan neighborhood.
"The idea of child sexual abuse was unknown to me—and I wasn't raised in a prep school—until I became an investigator for the public health service. And my job was to track the chain of syphilitic infection and I kept finding children in the feeding chain. It was mind-boggling . . . I knew I was seeing the truth, and the truth just makes you angry beyond the imagination of anybody who has not seen it."
Vachss concedes that others might see him as monomaniacal. But he counters that "a man's entitled to his own experience and his own view of it . . . I don't claim to be a social critic. I'm not Raymond Chandler. I'm not writing about Los Angeles from the very rich to the very poor. I'm not doing that and I don't fancy myself as a writer. I don't pretend to be one."
He admits revulsion is a frequent reaction to his fiction. "People do act sometimes like I've just brought this unspeakable filth into their lives." But he turns immediately combative, saying, "But anyone who says I'm making this stuff up should get a CAT scan."
Because he is frequently threatened, Vachss says he has taken some precautions similar to his fictional hero Burke, who lives behind a screen of false identities, phony addresses and illicit credit cards.
"I'm in the Yellow Pages," he says. "The law office is easy to find. I'm not. If you went to that address, you wouldn't find me, but the mail gets there."
He adds, "If you looked at my driver's licence, you wouldn't get a home address out of that, either . . . You get an address that's good for the time it takes the motor vehicle bureau to verify it and the person who is holding that paper for you goes about their business.
"People think you have to rent by the month. You can rent by the day or by the hour.
"The last threat I recall is a man being led away to do a life sentence, turning to me in the courtroom, pointing his finger at me and saying, 'I have friends on the street,' " he says. "You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure that one out. I get the usual phone calls. I get very, very few written threats."
Over the years, Vachss says, he has been "hit in the face with a 2-by-4, my jaw's been broken twice, my nose three times."
"People with blunt instruments."
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