In Defense of the Children
Lawyer Andrew Henry Vachss, Fighting Urban Evil With Fiction
By Sandy Rovner
Originally published in The Washington Post, May 27, 1987
It may be a cliche to suggest that Andrew Henry Vachss might have stepped from the pages of one of his novels, but it is true nonetheless.
For starters, there is the eye patch, which is just enough distraction from Vachss' delicate features to lend him a glacial air. It gives his almost-too-pretty-for-a-man face an expression of hooded rage—even when he laughs, which he does often in an ironic, somewhat melancholy way. He does not permit a photograph with the patch, doesn't want to seem to be affecting anything, he says. The eye was injured in a childhood accident. There is no affectation to Vachss (pronounced vox), nor is there to any of the street-smart urban Robin Hoods who shoot, kick, punch, stab, scratch and bite their way to social justice through the pages of his two strangely powerful books.
Practically nobody in a Vachss novel has more than one name. Oh, the villains might have three, but not the good guys. "Flood," the name of the first book, is also the name of its heroine. "Strega" (Italian for "witch"), the just-published sequel, is the sobriquet for its protagonist as well. Burke—just Burke—is the Vachssian hero, a kind of Mike Hammerish, always-on-the-edge-of-the-law private eye. And when he goes over the edge it's on the wrong side. That is the major characteristic that distinguishes Burke from his creator. Not that Vachss wouldn't like to sometimes, considering what he thinks of some of what Burke calls "citizens," the straight folks.
Vachss, 44, is not a novelist by profession. He is a lawyer, a legal advocate for children, mostly abused children. But that kind of practice doesn't generate much money, so the books serve two purposes. One is to underwrite his legal practice. The other is to publicize his cause; to broadcast a clear, painfully graphic message to people who read books about inner-city antiheroes, people who might not otherwise hear what really happens to the children. What happens in the sleazy, crowded underworlds of America's cities where a child can be a little more than a tool in the hands of the purveyors of pornography, perversion, prostitution, torture and murder. The indestructible world of sex and snuff movies.
Child abuse is so much too mild a euphemism for what Vachss is talking about as to make him quiver in frustration.
"What is going to destroy America," he says in a low, gentle voice with an edge of implacability, "is our own children. I'm not worried about Star Wars, but I'd like to have some sense that the people who will be pushing the button when it comes time for Star Wars are not culturally induced sociopaths.
"And that's what we're getting. The essential quality of evil when you see it walking around is a lack of empathy. You feel no one's pain but your own. The way you get that in a child is you torture the child, again and again. Then you simply sit back and let that filthy poisonous mess percolate. When it comes to a full boil, then you have a serial killer, then you have a mass rapist, then you have somebody who likes to set fires and watch the flames—and then, if you are a conservative, you say, well, the genetic die bounced on the belt of life and the kid came up an arsonist."
To ignore the problem, he says, "is contrary to our self-interest as a society ... We're in far more danger from what's happening inside our houses than we ever are from communists.
"We keep turning out the raw meat for the lions all the time," he continues. "The runaways, the push-outs. Kids are like radioactive isotopes. They have, like, a half-life. Their lives as children are done rather quickly, and their value to evil people is used up even more quickly. What happens to the ones who survive is that they remind us every day of the price they pay—by making us pay."
For Andrew Vachss, it is war, a war he fights every day. "Flood" and "Strega" are only two of his weapons.
"What I want the books to do is make people angry. I'm not looking to raise consciousness, because I think that's a waste of time. Unless you're going to do something with the enlightenment, who cares?
"But anger is the fuel that drives America. Until we get angry about it we just change channels."
Graphic as they are, both of Vachss' books have drawn solid critical acclaim— "witty," "original," "engaging" and of course, "violent" are some adjectives sprinkled in major reviews. David Morrell, who created the character Rambo in his book "First Blood," finds the Burke character "delightful," and indeed, the detective has some attributes fitting that description. But his penchant for vengeance and self-administered justice tends to temper his charms.
And then there is Pansy, a 140-pound Neapolitan mastiff who occasionally "munches," frequently "snarfs," but never just "eats," and who goes for her "walks" on the roof of the building in which she and Burke live. Pansy is trained not to eat until her master says "speak," to frustrate any plans to distract or poison her with some haunch-size goody. Mastiffs have huge heads and slobber a lot. The Assyrians used them to hunt lions. They are also said to be very good with children.
Andrew Vachss grew up in Manhattan, the Lower West Side. Before World War II, his father was a professional football player (for the City Island Skippers—"he played against Vince Lombardi"). When the elder Vachss returned from the war, multiple injuries kept him tied to a factory bench and the family to a low-income life style. Andrew and his brother grew up close enough to the streets to know their way around. (Burke, on the other hand, was an orphan raised by the state and a progression of correctional institutions.)
Vachss began to discern the plight of America's homeless youth as a Public Health Service investigator in Steubenville, Ohio, a town "of whorehouses and gambling houses." Tracking venereal diseases led him to too many children. He returned to New York and, as he puts it, "worked in the infamous welfare department" for two years.
Then he went to Biafra, sent by a group of charitable foundations to check on the millions of dollars sent over for starving children. He came back sick, with malaria among other things, and down on the Nigerian books as a war criminal. After recuperating (there is a fragile quality to Vachss, but he says, "I'll talk about anybody's health but my own"), he studied with social activist Saul Alinsky in Chicago. He decided to go to law school after a stint running a maximum security prison for 16- to 20-year-olds. "I don't know what you call them," he says. "They weren't kids and they weren't adults."
He started his law practice in 1976, and began writing in the early '80s; "Flood" was published in 1985. If the novels are good, he says, "that's just the luck of the draw. My goal was to reach people I'd never get to talk to, people who never read the professional journals or watch PBS when I'm being interviewed."
He peoples the stories with unusual characters because "otherwise it would be so unrelenting, because the material itself is so hard."
Recurring figures include:
Max—a giant Tibetan martial arts expert who is mute.
The Mole—an electronic genius who ran away from home and lives under a junkyard in the South Bronx. He can hook up anything—phones, lasers, alarms—at any time and black out parts of the city selectively (or even parts of a specific house). He is Jewish, and obsessed with Nazis and revenge thereupon.
Mama—proprietor of a Chinese restaurant with an obscene name. It is Burke's major place of business outside his fortress-within-a-warehouse home. Best food in the city, but when The Times restaurant critic comes around Mama always knows and serves garbage.
Flood—Burke's true love, almost as fine a martial artist as Max. She's not around in "Strega," but Burke misses her so much she's likely to come back in the next book, or the next. (In real life Vachss is married to the chief of the "special victims bureau" for the Queens County, N.Y., district attorney's office. The couple has no children.)
Obviously, Vachss has no patience with any form of child abuse. But he saves his deepest contempt for the pedophile—not necessarily a homosexual, as some immediately assume, but anyone with an abnormal sexual desire for children. Burke shares this rage; when he confronts the wealthy, liberal, cultivated and influential "mentor" of young boys in "Strega," the detective envisions "a little dot of cancer inside his chest."
"I think people confuse sickness with evil," Vachss says. "To feel the feelings, to have the sexual desire for a child, that's sick. Acting on those things is evil ...
"That is a distinction that psychiatry and the world fail to perceive. Ask psychologists and psychiatrists and they'll give me a diagnosis for it. They'll never say, 'He's a miserable worthless maggot, an evil, rotten son of a bitch.' They'll say, 'He has an antisocial personality disorder.'
"I once asked a doctor what was an example of an antisocial personality disorder, and he said, 'a mass murderer.'
"I don't believe those pedophiles are treatable," Vachss says.
Neither does Burke.