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Andrew Vachss Does Not Paint Pretty Pictures

By Aleksandrs Rozens
Released by Reuters, November 1, 2000.

NEW YORK (Reuters) — His books evoke the grit of a Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler novel, but Andrew Vachss' prose is not pretty, nor are the situations his protagonists face.

After all, much of what happens in the guise of fiction has been witnessed in one way or another by Vachss, a lawyer who represents children, many of them abused, and who is also a former social worker and former director of a maximum-security prison for youthful offenders. In fact, it is a world that would probably shock the noir school of mystery writers and give them palpitations behind their typewriters.

"I was a federal investigator of sexually transmitted diseases. I was a case worker in the New York City Department of Welfare. I was in the war in Biafra (to help distribute food aid). I was a juvenile probation officer. I ran a reentry center for ex-convicts. I ran an advocacy service, Uptown Community Organization in Chicago. I directed a maximum-security prison for violent youth before I went to law school," he said.

"So to say the material comes from legal cases would be wrong," said Vachss, 58, whose latest novel is "Dead and Gone" (Alfred A. Knopf).

The hero of several Vachss novels, named Burke, returns to help in what seems like a routine barter for a kidnapped child. But this time Burke, whose best friend is a huge Neapolitan mastiff named Pansy, turns out to be the prey in an adventure that takes him out of his usual surroundings.

A seamy underground

As usual, Vachss introduces readers of his latest novel to a seamy underground with its unique hierarchy whose individuals are identified by their jailhouse tattoos. "You can read their rank right on their bodies, the specialists mark themselves with prison tattoos. The symbols tell you who's the thief, who's the assassin, who uses fire, who does the bodywork."

Vachss, whose work is published in 25 languages, never set out to be a fiction writer and has little time for detective fiction written by what he considers amateurs with little regard for authenticity who conjure up ludicrous scenarios.

"Fire the goddamned gun. You might be able to write better. Virgins write sex scenes all the time, understand?" the author of over a dozen novels said.

His legal practice specializes in cases concerning children and youth—abuse and neglect as well as delinquency.

"I got a law degree in 1975. I was tired of being ineffective," Vachss said. "All the jobs I had I was always at great risk for being fired. I was always working for somebody else. I wanted to exclusively represent children so law seemed the only way for me at that time."

He also found that a textbook he wrote was ineffective because it reached only a small circle of readers. "Thousands of footnotes and interviews with some of the scariest human beings you have ever met—you read the first interview, I guarantee you you will never think Stephen King is scary again," he said. While his textbook received critical acclaim from the profession, he added, "the public never saw it."

'Let all this be fiction'

So Vachss wrote a novel drawing on his experiences. "This is the same material wrapped around fiction with what I hope is sufficient narrative force to make you want to read to the end," he said. But "if I had a wish, if there was a god I could pray to, it would be: 'Let this all be fiction.'"

In "Dead and Gone," Burke describes himself as "a file, a case, a subject, a foster kid, a mental case, a JD, a convict. None of the endless agencies ever knew me." So the character whose religion is revenge bathes in anger: "Fear and rage. One keeps me alive and the other makes people dead. If you took them from me, I'd just be sad."

That anger jumps off of the pages to claw at readers.

"That's the ideal emotion I'd like to leave the reader with because anger is what drives all change. Complacency is the enemy of change," Vachss said, conceding that the harshness of his stories may hinder his reaching a broader commercial success. "Everybody reads one or two of them but some people cannot go on and say, 'I was looking for more fun.'"

Those who do read his work often respond with letters to Vachss or e-mails to his Web site (

Many are adults who were abused as children or whose spouses were abused as children. Then there are the social workers, police officers and even the offenders themselves who laud Vachss' fiction for its reality.

Many readers who were abused are convinced his books are about them. "You get 20 different letters and they are the same damn letter from all over the world," he lamented.

Burke's anger emerges from Vachss' short, clipped prose almost as if it were a personal vendetta, but New York-born Vachss says his writing does not reflect a damaged childhood.

No abused child himself

"I could not have had a better childhood," he said, quipping that his home life made 1950s television show "Leave It To Beaver" seem abusive by comparison.

Vachss' writing is sparse. He cares little for adjectives and his short stories are full of sharp twists, recalling the noir fiction of Cornell Woolrich.

Vachss says his work is regularly eyed by Hollywood for possible film projects and writing clinics examine his fiction, but he has no interest in teaching writing.

Some book critics have complained that his stories are too outlandish, and one novel, written in 1973, was rejected by publishers. But events in the story seem to presage the tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado.

"It was rejected by every publisher in the free world on the grounds that the stuff was too unrealistic. In one scene, somebody walks into a high school with a duffel bag full of weapons and explosives, attempts to kill every human being in the high school and then kills himself," Vachss said.

Like many writers, he dedicates his books to friends, but his dedications are all to dead friends. "Dead and Gone" is a remembrance for Alicia Jiminez, a migrant worker and garment district worker.

"I never wrote a dedication to a person that is alive and never will. If a person is alive I can tell them how I feel about them. This is a tombstone. My monument. If someone is alive, they don't need one."

Copyright © 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved.


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