A Voice For Abused Children
Andrew Vachss writes books with single-minded focus
By Joe Holleman of the Post-Dispatch Staff
Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 18, 1996
Andrew Vachss—rhymes with Axe—writes as well as anyone putting pen-to-detective-fiction paper.
He is the author of 10 novels and a short story collection and is working on getting two of his characters onto the movie screen. He also has written a series of graphic novels for Dark Horse Comics. His work has been critically-acclaimed.
But he really doesn't care about that.
"To me, it's not my art that's important, it's my theme. Child abuse," Vachss said. "People who abuse children, people who hurt children, are my enemies. It's as simple as that."
Vachss was in St. Louis recently for a book-signing at Library Ltd. in Clayton to promote his newest novel, "False Allegations." It is his ninth novel featuring Burke, an abused child who became a felon and ex-con, who then became a defender of abused children.
Vachss has more of a cult following than a bestseller constituency. But his sparse, uncompromising style clearly shows that the author has lived, and worked, on the grim streets and in the dark alleys of which he writes.
His heroes, and his villains, are often the victims of child abuse—physical, sexual or psychological. Kiddie porn, snuff films, child prostitution, baby-selling and other depravities are the poles around which his stories spin.
Like Burke, Vachss is opinionated without raising his voice. Vachss speaks as he writes—economically. A "yes-no" question gets a one-word response. He does his book tours without agents or advance people at his side. Army jackets and blue jeans are the staples of his wardrobe. He smokes cigarettes at a steady pace, and empties the ashtray after each one.
His politics? Take your pick.
Vachss said that when he talks about his strong belief in counseling young criminals, or about giving incest victims free abortions, "The liberals love me."
When he says that people who prey sexually on young children can't be rehabilitated and should spend their lives in prison, "Then, they don't love me."
Some history: Vachss, who described his last name as "your typical Ellis Island renovated name," claims Hungarian, Spanish, Greek and Gypsy ancestry.
He is in his early 50s, a bit shorter than average and on the thin side of the scale. He talks softly with a voice that is pure "New Yawk," as a Midwesterner might say.
Vachss doesn't speak much, or seem to care to, of his childhood. When told that some readers could make the assumption that he himself was the victim of child abuse, he replied, "They could, but it would be an ignorant one. As a child, the only place I knew I was safe was inside my own home. And a lot of children can't say that."
He's been married three times but has never had children. He sees nothing off-kilter about being a childless crusader for abused kids. "That's like saying you have to be black to be concerned about civil rights, or you have to be a dolphin to be concerned about tuna nets."
Point-blank statements like that are run-of-the-mill. When asked about an aborted attempt several years ago to get a Burke novel, "Blue Belle" onto the screen, he said: "The writer was obviously a brain-damaged human being who got drunk and then got hit on the head with a sock full of aquarium sand," he said.
Ask a question, get an answer.
Vachss wears an eye patch because of a gang fight when he was a kid, he said. He enlisted in the Marines when he was 17, and scammed several corpsmen by memorizing the eye chart. But a Navy doctor gave him a thorough eye test before induction and, of course, sent him packing.
He ended up in Cleveland and attended what is now Case Western Reserve University. Returning to New York, he began work as a federal investigator on venereal diseases—the job that first sparked his passion for defending children.
Vachss tells of a man who came into a clinic with lacerated genitals, injured from having sex with his 5-year-old daughter, who died from the attack. "The hatred I felt, I felt through my entire body. I just wanted to grab this man and twist his neck until I heard it snap. I thought that I was looking at the devil. Then, I began finding out that there were many others just like him."
Vachss became a social worker for New York City and then moved on to running a halfway house for soon-to-be released prisoners, and then a facility for youthful offenders.
"That's where it hit home—that today's victims are tomorrow's predators," he said. But his frustration of not being able to do anything about it led him to law school. He now defends only children in court.
"But I was looking for a bigger jury," he said when asked why he took to writing. "My first book was a textbook, you know, dry with lots of footnotes. It got wonderful reviews from the 14 people who read it."
The next stop was writing fiction. His first novel, featuring Burke, was published in 1985. Before that, it was rejection after rejection, The reason, he says, is because his stories revolved around child abuse and other such unpalatable issues. "Now, child abuse is the plot device of the '90s."
To say that Burke is one of the most unusual characters in popular fiction would be an understatement. He has only one name because his birth certificate contained only the notation "Baby Boy Burke." He was an abused and neglected child, both by the people who created him and by the state institutions that took him in. He is a convicted felon, armed robber, thief, mercenary and con man who still survives by scams and rip-offs.
Burke's "family" is as bizarre as they come: Max the Silent, a deaf and dumb martial-arts expert; The Prof, a grizzled ex-con who speaks mainly in rhyme; Mama, a thoroughly illegal money-launderer and deal-maker who hates having customers at her Chinese restaurant; and The Mole, a spooky techno-geek who helps Burke if it doesn't interfere with his free-lance jobs for the Mossad. His only housemate is Pansy, a killer 175-pound Neapolitan mastiff.
Vachss admits to similarities with Burke. "We have the same tastes in music, politics, racehorses, women, cars and dogs. But, bottom line, Burke is impotent to make lasting changes. He can revenge something. But will the world be a better place for children when he's gone? Probably not."
Vachss said he hopes his fight, and his novels, can make a lasting change. "Burke's a cynic. I'm not a cynic. I'm in there slugging."
Judging by fan mail, he said, he has hit home with people who were abused as children. "That's who writes me the most." Those fans see Burke as an avenging angel.
Vachss does not apologize for his strident approach to the issue: "By now, people should know what I'm about. If you don't like it, take a pass. But there are enough people out there who want to read it or I would've disappeared a long time ago."