Vachss' Work Emanates From His Own Cold Rage
By Mark Rahner, Seattle Times staff reporter
PORTLAND — Andrew Vachss doesn't have time for your nonsense.
He can turn the "celebrity interview" on its ear and give it a steel-toed kick to the gut. Because, in a way, sitting for an interview is a compromise for the author of the thriller "Dead and Gone," (Knopf, $25), who is noted for being uncompromising in all other respects.
As a writer: His intense crime novels featuring outlaw avenger Burke would make a genteel Miss Marple aficionado do an Earl Gray spit-take; and his newly available 1973 first novel, "A Bomb Built in Hell," was originally rejected by publishers for its extreme portrayal of a serial killer bent on bringing about his own apocalypse. (See his official Web site, www.vachss.com for links to download it for free.)
As a children's advocate and lawyer who takes only cases of children and youths: He's in a "war" against those who harm kids. The enemy needs to be stopped first, then maybe understood somewhere down the line.
For Vachss (rhymes with "smacks"), the cost-benefit ratio of interviews is questionable. At first, he may seem argumentative, even petulant. In fact, he is listening, parsing and then firing back the hair-trigger responses of a hyper-focused and impatient mind.
You meet him on his terms—in this case, a restaurant in Portland's industrial area. The 57-year-old New Yorker has relocated to Portland and has brought his character Burke along, setting much of "Dead and Gone" there. Meeting at the home he shares with his wife, author and former prosecutor Alice Vachss (depicted in the novels as tough prosecutor Wolfe) is not an option. Why?
"I don't even get that question," he says. "You want me to go into whole routines about all the people I have problems with and all the people that have problems with me?"
Vachss' uncompromising hard-boiled style and statements have reportedly earned him all manner of anonymous threats in the past.
"Sure. That's a reason.," he says over a plate of spaghetti Bolognese. But even if he were working for a life-insurance company as an accounts clerk, he says he still wouldn't want anyone to know where he lives.
In "Dead and Gone," Burke winds up in the Northwest on the trail of his own would-be killers. Hired as the middleman to see through the ransom exchange of a kidnapped boy, he finds himself in a setup, shot to pieces and left for dead. His beloved Neopolitan mastiff, Pansy, dies protecting him. He goes underground for a long recuperation, and then sets out for revenge. The trail ultimately leads to a planned haven for pedophiles—the mortal enemies of Burke, who is one of what Vachss calls the "children of the secret," victims of abuse.
"His real mission is to find out who set him up, because he can't be safe until he knows that," Vachss says.
He explains where the idea for the story came from: "In all these books, Burke has had this image in his mind of this super-pedophile, and it was important that people understand that when you go far enough up the pyramid, people do it for money. If you met the head of the Cali Cartel, do you think it would be a dope fiend?"
Vachss' own reasons for migrating are slightly more mysterious. "I'm doing a project that I can't talk about that's going to take two, three, four years. It's about my work—not my writing, but my work—and this is the place to do it. I do not know if I'm going to stay here or not. I don't have a flannel shirt or a chocolate lab or an SUV, and I don't think cigarette smokers should be killed, and I don't think people who stab people in prison should go to anger-management classes."
Vachss' writing and his work have gained him a significant following. He's been published in more than two dozen countries, and none of his novels has been out of print. ("Flood," the first Burke novel, was published in 1985.) "Dead and Gone" has spent the past three weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
His appearance on Oprah Winfrey's show was also instrumental in the passing of the National Child Protection Act of 1993, establishing a database to track child abusers. You'll see his scowling visage in a group photo of President Clinton signing the bill.
Vachss' persona is inseparable from his writing: grim and spare. No irony and no tongue-in-cheek banter. And those who know him will tell you it's no persona.
"You get this off-putting, ultra-serious guy who pares everything to the bone," says Jack Olsen, Bainbridge Island author of "Last Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt" and numerous other crime-related books. "He pares his talking to the bone. With him, everything is nitty-gritty. But when it comes to friendship, he'll walk across ground glass for you.
"The Burke books are like very fine, fully nuanced crime novels of . . . out of which all the water has been squeezed. They ring true, and at the same time they're imaginative. You don't come to anything that could not have happened," Olsen says.
There are reasons for that—the same reasons why Vachss doesn't have time for critics who have never been out from behind a book, but say his scenarios are unrealistic.
Vachss was not an abused child, nor does he have children. He speaks fondly of his mother, a seamstress, and his father, whose professional football aspirations were smashed by World War II service and who spent his career working for trucking companies.
The horrifying images that came later would stoke his lifelong furnace of rage, giving him his laser focus. Vachss worked as a federal investigator of sexually transmitted diseases, encountering baby-rapists and other human monsters. He volunteered for a coalition of relief agencies to wade into the tribal genocide of Biafra, in what became obvious was a vain effort to help get food into the war zone there. He ran a maximum-security prison for violent youths in Massachusetts. And then he put himself through law school.
Scam artist Burke operates out of a Chinese restaurant, and so did Vachss in the early days of the mid-1970s. "I was driving a cab at night and being a lawyer in the daytime," he recalls. "That's why the office is in the Chinese restaurant. I provided legal services to everybody in the establishment, which sometimes was significant. And they provided a booth, all the food I could eat and they would answer the phones.
"My practice was representing a gunfighter in the morning and an incest victim in the afternoon, and one's paying for the other. I had some cases where I made a lot of money, but the practice ate it."
In "Dead and Gone," Burke's resemblance to Vachss takes on a more physical manifestation, when an eye wound leaves Burke without binocular vision. Vachss wears an eye patch, after a boyhood assault with a chain. (He points out that Burke doesn't wear a patch, and has never been physically described in any detail.)
"One of the few things that really enrages me is when jackasses come up to me and say, 'That thing looks cool. Where can I get one?' Like it's a fashion statement," Vachss says. "It's all I can do not to say, 'There! That'll fix it!' He mimes a jab in the air. "Walk around for a day with one eye covered and you will be shocked at the things you blunder into, the connections you can't make." He gives readers a small glimpse of what it was like, in passages where Burke learns to adjust to life with his injury.
These days, Burke's hellish quests finance Vachss' law practice, which is exclusively for children and youths. And while Vachss bristles at the mistaken notion that buying one of his books fights child abuse, he often says they're Trojan horses for his messages. Among them: Family is defined by actions, and not merely what he calls "DNA-clumping." Both Vachss and Burke have what they call a "family of choice."
"The sweetest thing I could say about my mother and father is that if I had the choice, I would have picked them. But I don't have any belief in biology or DNA as compelling conduct," Vachss says. "The idea that we owe people something because we're related to them is bizarre. But the idea that we owe something because of their conduct towards us is legitimate."
Vachss remains so focused that he's already got Burke's next dark adventure planned.
"It's something that enrages me, as always. The book's going to be called 'Pain Management.' This country is sick and perverted and disgusting about pain management. People are dying in pain all over this country—screaming, intractable, horrible pain—because the legacy of Nancy . . . Reagan is they're not supposed to die dope fiends. Why should somebody with inoperable brain cancer have his drugs regulated? No one can explain that to me."
It should be no surprise that all of Vachss' stories spring from rage.
"Yes," he says, adding: "But the kind of rage I have, which is icy, not hot. If I ever stopped being angry, I couldn't write anymore. How could I? There are freaks that come up with something new every day."
Copyright © 2000 The Seattle Times Company.
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