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Andrew Vachss, Writer with a Mission

By Jennifer Weiner
Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 1, 2000.


Andrew Vachss is not like other writers.

Other writers might pick up pen and paper because they have a story to tell, a point to make, an ax to grind. They might write because it seems glamorous, or lucrative, a lifestyle that will let them explain away their eccentricities—"oh, he's an artist."

Andrew Vachss—lawyer, journalist, children's advocate, and the author of a textbook, three graphic novels, and a dozen novels in the "Burke" series—has no such pretensions. He writes because he has a mission.

"How can I explain this? You know how a really good piece of steak is marbled with fat? That's what I do with information. My books are like a good steak with narrative force and all that plot-driven stuff that people like," plus a message snaking its way through the pages in nearly invisible veins.

The Burke books—the chronicles of a vigilante-style enforcer and his life on the gray rim between the daytime of law-abiding citizens and the dark underworld of crime—is 12 books long and running, and makes the noir-film genre look practically pastel. Burke—a man with no first name, no parents, and, in Vachss' current work, Dead and Gone, new fingerprints and a new face—is "doomed," says Vachss. Burke is devoid of pretty much everything but his single purpose, honed to the fine edge of a blade—keeping children safe from sexual predators.

Not autobiographical

It's a mission he shares with his creator, although they don't share much else. Burke is a lone wolf, Vachss is happily married. Burke exists off the books, in the shadows, supported by a net of loyal friends, aliases and fake IDs. Vachss is a prominent attorney, a contributing editor to Parade magazine, where he writes about child abuse. He's done Oprah. It's hard to imagine Burke knowing, or caring much about, who Oprah is.

But you can imagine that they both have a similarly pragmatic view of the printed word. Why write? Because, Vachss says simply, it's the best way to get the message out.

"I was looking for a much bigger jury than I could ever find in a courthouse. This is a method of communication. It's not different from being a troubadour in some other time. You've got to play well enough for people to listen."

Crime and punishment

And if beyond-gritty hard-boiled tales of bad crimes and worse punishments are your music of choice, Vachss plays fabulously. The plot-driven stories churn along with energy and with a memorable gallery of the walking wounded who are Burke's family of choice.

Vachss wasn't always the critic's darling. His first book, A Bomb Built in Hell, was rejected by practically every publishing house in New York for being "so over-amped, so ridiculous." The sad truth is that the things that seemed far-fetched even 10 years ago—people blowing up schools, people trading photographs of naked children on the Internet—have happened, and happened, and happened some more.

And so Vachss writes his books, "stealing time" for them between trials and lectures, viewing it, as always, secondary to what he sees as his real work. "If I was a writer, I wouldn't be satisfied with my life, and if I'd never written a book, I'd be satisfied. I've led an honorable life, I've done things that should have been done, and that would be enough."



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