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Searching for Clues

Andrew Vachss back in Gary for more evil

By Mark Taylor, Staff Writer
Originally published in the Post-Tribune, August 31, 1989

Details make it believable, he said. Driving east on U.S. 20 in Gary, New York lawyer and novelist Andrew Vachss peppered his hosts with local questions. Where would a person like his book's villain, a sexual psychopath, reside? Where would he hang out? How much are tolls on the Skyway and the Indiana Toll Road?

The 46-year-old Vachss visited Northwest Indiana recently to research his new book, "Blossom," set in Gary, Merrillvile and Schererville, areas he remembered from nearly 20 years ago when he worked here as a community organizer.

He returned to refresh his memories, traveling with a longtime Northwest Indiana friend and a Chicagoland novelist to places that will appear as backdrops in his book, a novel that explores the making of a sexual psychopath.

There is evil in this world. And Vachss knows its secrets—as intimately as the child abuse victims he represents as a New York City attorney.

His is a dark, subterranean world untraveled by most Americans. The unspeakable cases he routinely encounters reveal incest, vicious torture and even deaths of children at the hands of adults.

Vachss, whose earned a national reputation as an expert on child abuse and juvenile crime, explored that world and posed possible solutions in his well-respected 1979 text on juvenile treatment, "The LifeStyle Violent Juvenile: The Secure Treatment Approach."

But he felt frustrated by its limited impact.

"I wrote a non-fiction book on juvenile violence that received great reviews, but didn't sell 3,000 copies," he recalled. "It struck me that if I wanted to get the message out, I had to do a novel. Because if you're telling a fundamental truth, people will want to read about it."

His plan succeeded. His four novels have sold hundreds of thousands of copies in 15 countries. The royalties allow him to pursue his specialized legal practice, an arena of the law that doesn't reward as well as corporate mergers or personal injury.

His protagonist, Burke, is a man who balances—and frequently crosses—the moral boundaries of an immoral world, living off criminals and tracking down the predatory child molesters whom Vachss meets in real life in court.

Burke, who has appeared in the best-selling "Flood," "Blue Belle," Strega" and "Hard Candy," comes to Gary in Vachss' next novel, "Blossom," the first set outside New York City.

Vachss first arrived in Gary in 1970 as an organizer for the Calumet Community Congress.

Former Gary resident George Bogdanich, now 40, remembered him as a streetwise, tenacious, committed activist "who didn't suffer fools gladly. He was an interesting guy who had a restless quality about him," Bogdanich said, "who worked on 15 projects at once and didn't mince words."

He still doesn't. "I can't explain why," Vachss said whistfully. "But I still feel at home here."

Vachss' research method is more sensory than academic. "I only take notes on things I have to get right. Names of streets and addresses, the details," he explained. "The rest of it I have in my head. I don't use a tape recorder. I use my eyes and ears and nose. It's actually more like re-experiencing."

Earlier that morning he visited the Lake County Juvenile Detention Center to see where a lawyer would interview a juvenile offender.

More details.

Author Eugene Izzi's 1988 Lincoln Town Car turned into Gary's Paul Douglas Nature Center under a sweltering afternoon sun, The native New Yorker loped over to the prospective site as excitedly as a film location director scoping a movie scene.

In the eyes of an average visitor, the nature center's parking lot would seem little more than an asphalt convenience.

But to Vachss' penetrating eye, it presented a perfect setting for a grisly sniper killing. "He may just step out from a tree and do them," Vachss said.

Climbing the 7-foot fence beyond the parking lot, he ascended a sandy stretch of abandoned railroad tracks and pronounced: "The angle and the pitch are just perfect. It's like sitting watching somebody in their living room at night. I'm invisible here. I didn't think I'd find something this good this quick."

Stopping later for lunch at Miller's Beach Cafe, he talked about his law practice and his literary career. He is a lean, intense man with long, pianist's fingers, a model's facial bones and tousled, unkempt hair. A day-old stubble shaded his face.

He wears a Rolex watch with a chain link band. "Rolex is a negotiable currency in any country in the world," he said, demonstrating the alternate use of the status-symbol-turned-street weapon. "Plus you can wrap it around your fist."

But the eye patch is what compels attention. Vachss wears it to keep sunlight from his right eye, which was damaged when he was struck in the face by a chain at 7. Despite many operations, the eye still doesn't cooperate with its twin.

Vachss doesn't evade personal questions. But he doesn't welcome them either. (He admits to being married more than twice, and no children.) There's an aura of a lost soul about him. And his protection of his privacy and past often conjure comparisons with his alter ego and fictional hero, Burke.

"I don't give away too much," he said plainly. "That's not my writing style."

It's not his personal style, either.

His friend Bogdanich, now a political consultant in Chicago, said Vachss is someone who, as a lawyer, is obligated to play by the rules "to bring these scumbags to justice."

But to Vachss, his novels are a way to educate the public. "And he doesn't have to play by the rules there," [Bogdanich] said.

Still, the dark world he inhabits doesn't seem to depress him. He sleeps well at night. He admitted, though, there's no escape from the horror stories he hears daily.

"There isn't a drug in the world you can take to get away from it," he said. "But I'm not someone who looks into the aquarium and feels sorry for the fish. I can save more lives doing what I do in one year than a surgeon can. I have less reason to be depressed than anybody. I'm doing something about it. And if you're angry enough, the depression flees."

To protect his sanity, Vachss deliberately avoids emotional attachments to the children he represents "I'm like a surgeon. If I got involved with them, I'd be in a rubber room now. I don't delude myself into thinking I'm their father."

The same commitment to the victims Vachss protects is channeled into his literary career. Success didn't arrive overnight. His first novel, "Hard Candy," now a bestseller, was rejected when he first submitted it in 1973.

"Hell, even the vanity press rejected it," he laughed. "One editor wrote, 'I stand foursquare against censorship. But I don't think people should be allowed to read this book.'"

That's changed, though. Novelist Eugene Izzi, along for the ride from his home in Park Forest, Ill., said, "Andrew Vachss has this gift for cutting through everything to find the truth. And he's the only guy I've ever met who'll make an impact long after he'd died."

Vachss said his novels are intended to raise questions and arouse anger among readers.

"If the books have disturbed you," Vachss said wryly, "then they were a roaring success."


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