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The Haunted World of Andrew Vachss

Will the child-abuse crusader and bestselling crime novelist vanquish his demons in Oregon?

By Zach Dundas
Originally published in Willamette Week, November 17, 1999.


Andrew Vachss is exactly the same every single day. Enraged.

"I've learned to ice the rage," he says. "So I don't act out, like I did plenty of times when I was younger."

Better to stay calm, to steer the vitriol with laser precision.

"It burns just the same," he says. "Especially since it's constantly refueled."

Vachss is at war, fighting on many fronts. He's a best-selling crime writer, with 13 novels and millions of sales to his credit. He's also a lawyer, a hellcat barrister described as nearly invincible in court. He's an activist, trying to sway national policy (see "Raising the Stakes"). First and foremost, though, he's a preacher, evangelizing in vinegar tones that mark his New York City upbringing.

His enemy in this jihad? Child abuse in all its forms, sexual molestation in particular. It's a cause that feeds a limitless fury. "Not a day goes by when I don't get some new reason to be enraged," he says.

Is he obsessed? People who know him say that doesn't begin to cover it.

"Obsessed? That's an understatement," says David Gendelman, a rat-a-tat-talking New York lawyer who's been Vachss' ally for years. "I've said to this guy many times, hey, take a few days off and relax. Come out to the beach for a barbecue. He won't do it."

It may seem odd, then, that less than a year ago, Vachss traded his native megalopolis for new digs near Portland, bringing his full-throttle work ethic and attack-dog yen for battle to the land of balanced living and fuzzy New Age harmony. In copacetic Oregon, fiction is more apt to feature Zen-addled fly fishermen than the self-avowed sociopaths who people Vachss' novels. Which, of course, poses a question: If Andrew Vachss is the hardest of the hardboiled, what the hell is he doing here?

If motherfuckers would let me be, I swear I would be a polite, respectful person. —Burke, Footsteps of the Hawk

Vachss' fiction slaps the face of a genre grown fat and happy on silky Bogart fantasies and tea-time whodunits. Uninitiated mystery fans often come away knock-kneed and caramelized from Vachss' tales of illegal organ harvesting, incest, Internet kiddie porn, the serial murder of teenage prostitutes and suburban S&M rings.

The icy eye of Vachss' storm is Burke, the main character ("hero" would not be entirely accurate) of most of his writing. A career criminal, part-time unlicensed private-eye and full-time dangerous man, Burke hunkers deep in subterranean New York, crashing in a squat guarded by his Neapolitan mastiff Pansy, working for the highest bidder. He runs his life from a booth in a Chinatown restaurant that, in his words, "has lots of businesses...selling food isn't one of them."

Burke generally won't hurt people unless they do one of two things: mess with his tight family of street allies—which includes a mute Mongolian headcracker and a radical Zionist mad scientist—or abuse kids. More often than not, child molesters he runs across end up dead.

Vachss has obviously hit a fresh nerve. Burke's pummeling adventures have been translated into about two dozen languages. In Portland, his appearances at Borders and Powell's draw some of the biggest crowds the stores see.

"I consider him the preacher of crime fiction," says David Firks, editor of the Portland online crime magazine Blue Murder. "He cuts right to the bone. I read probably 200 stories a week in this job, and his have such rhythm. It's like jazz."

"He writes true, everyday shit," says Gary Lovisi, the editor of Hardboiled magazine. Lovisi lives in Brooklyn. pronounces the word "genre" john-ra and regards the hardboiled style as a blood calling. He praises Vachss as one of the most powerful crime writers around.

"What I've found with Andrew is that, whereas other people ratchet up the violence in their stories in an effort to make them ‘more realistic,' Andrew tones down a lot of the true things he's seen," Lovisi says.

Some critics have branded Vachss' relentless books cartoonish and unrealistic. If you want to get Vachss talking, bring this up.

"They don't have a fucking clue," he says. "You know why? Because their frame of reference is crime fiction, not life. You get hit in the head with a tire iron, five minutes later you're up and looking for clues. You get shot all the time. You do things for the right reasons, all the time. I write about crime. I write about violence. I write about abuse to children. I think if you look around this country, why are these not mainstream novels? That's not happening here? The Bridges of Madison County, that's like—what? I make stuff up?"

"I wrote a book called Strega. It talked about modem trafficking of kiddie porn. 1987, the book was published. The reviewing communitv shrieked about how inauthentic it was, about what a fevered, crazy imagination I had, how it was worse than science fiction. Try telling anyone today that modem trafficking of kiddie porn does not happen."

"What happens is, I'm at ground zero, so if I see something happening, I write about it."

Ground zero. Looking back on Vachss' life, it seems impossible that he could have ended up anywhere else.

Down where we live, every day is a rainy day. —Burke, Blue Belle

Born in 1942, Vachss grew up in a neighborhood wedged between Chinatown, Little Italy and the Village, near the waterfront on Manhattan's Lower East Side. It wasn't exactly a breeding ground for sensitive types.

"Everybody fought," he says. "I mean, what you call these stupid fight clubs now? We didn't have fight clubs, but every day after school somebody was fightin' somebody. Looking back now, I don't think that was such a great and wonderful thing, but that's how it was."

Vachss wandered through Cleveland's Case-Western Reserve University. His real education, it turned out, began immediately after graduation. In 1965, he landed a gig as an investigator for the U.S. Public Health Service's syphilis task force.

"Let's say you had syphilis," Vachss recounts. "I'd have to persuade you to tell me everyone you've had sex with in the last 90 days, six months, a year. And if what you tell me is, well, she was blonde, I think her name was Mary and I met her in such and such a bar, I'd have to find that bar, I'd have to hang out there until I saw someone of that description, and if I saw someone, I'd have to find out if she was Mary. And if she was, I'd have to persuade her to tell me the same story, and so on down the line until I broke the chain."

"I became the guy they sent out when somebody wouldn't talk. And I was the guy who got the prisons, the migrant labor camps and whorehouses. I thought it was a great job."

In the course of one investigation, Vachss ran across a man with a lacerated penis. He'd injured himself while molesting his own infant child. You could say that this discovery was an epiphany for Vachss, but that word doesn't seem quite strong enough.

"I went into a rage that I'm still in," he says. "Child molestation was always presented to us as something strangers did. The idea that someone would penetrate their own infant, tear the kid in half—I would have said, ah, it's not possible."

"I thought I'd met Satan. Who else could do this? But then, when I saw that there were people who were not only like him, but that they were friends of his, and when I found there was money to be made, that you could traffic in it—yeah, it fried my nerves."

Vachss went to work for the New York City Department of Social Services in the late ‘60s before plunging into one of the era's most horrific calamities, the war between Nigeria's military regime and the short-lived secessionist Republic of Biafra.

As Biafrans starved under blockade and bombardment by Nigerian federal forces, hundreds of millions of dollars poured into programs hoping to save hordes of famine-stricken kids. Aid organizations wanted someone to go into Biafra to make sure the food and cash were getting through.

Vachss signed on.

"Once I got there, I wasn't on the ground for 30 seconds before I realized it was too late," he says. Vachss escaped as Biafra collapsed, but not before he had contracted debilitating malaria and seen, as he says, "every kind of mass death you could ever hope to see."

"My nerve endings were cauterized a long time ago," Vachss says now. "The whole issue of what this stuff is doing to me is not a factor. I left that in a jungle 30 years ago."

Back in the States, he worked first at a Boston halfway house for a year, then took a job running the worst juvenile prison in Massachusetts, where his jaw was broken during a riot.

"I think this is where I finally came to understand," he says. "I saw these kids with the worst kind of behavior you can imagine, all with the same history. They'd all been abused and neglected. That's when I decided to go to law school."

Like Burke, Vachss the lawyer first set up shop in a booth in a semi-legit Chinese restaurant in 1976. More or less broke, he drove a cab and paid "rent" in trade. He defended the restaurant's employees in their numerous squabbles with the law; in exchange, they answered the pay phone as though they were his secretaries.

As his practice took shape, this disreputable milieu and his focus on child protection informed a new sideline. He started writing raw, intense crime stories based closely on his cases.

In 1985, after more than a decade of battering at the door of the New York publishing establishment, Vachss landed a deal for Flood, Burke's debut. Soon enough, money from book sales allowed him to ditch straight criminal defense and focus only on children. Most importantly, he says, the modest celebrity accorded bestselling authors in this country gave him what he was after all along: a bigger platform from which to campaign.

It also turned him into a pop culture icon of sorts, a highly recognizable bare-knuckled avenger in a pirate's patch, fearsome and hawkish. This image has its uses.

Baby, I've known you forever. All your feelings are hard feelings.
—Michelle, a transsexual prostitute, to Burke, in Blue Belle

Two questions must occur to everyone when they first meet Andrew Vachss. One: What's the deal with the patch? Two: Do I have the guts to ask him about it?

He saves me the dilemma, hitting me with the story right out of the gate in our first meeting. When Vachss was 7, an older kid smacked him in the face with a chain. The resulting muscle injuries destroyed his control over his right eye. When Vachss takes his patch off, he says, it's like a strobe light is flashing in his face.

The patch has become integral to Vachss' persona, lending the fierce expressions he adopts for posed photographs a singular menace. Along with the tiny blue heart tattooed on his right hand, the patch makes Vachss look as tough as his writing and chasm-vowelled accent sound.

It's a mystique that attracts a lot of weirdness. Someone's spamming email addresses with slander about the author. There are enough people pretending to be him in Internet chat rooms to form a good-sized social club. A porn star has named herself in his honor. According to the volunteers who run Vachss' Web site, some guy in Alaska goes around telling people he's Andrew Vachss, that he's on the run from pedophiles and that plastic surgeons fixed his eye.

"We have the common impostors, people who claim to be me," Vachss says. "That's really kind of common. And pretending to be someone else on the Internet, that's like a new hobby." He sounds bored by the whole thing.

As I was crossing Lafayette Street, a tall slender Chinese girl shot by on Rollerblades.... She was a pro at it—had a backpack strapped on, a whistle on a chain around her neck, and black kneepads against a possible spill. A pair of business-dressed guys saw her too. One told the other the girl had another use for the kneepads. His pal laughed in appreciation. I figured the guy who made the crack was an expert— probably on his way to do the same thing to his boss.

Anytime I forget how bad I hate this place, somebody's always good enough to remind me. —Burke, Footsteps of the Hawk

On a sopping night in November, Vachss hangs out outside Borders in downtown Portland. Torrential rains fell earlier, buzzing against the huge bookstore's skylight as Vachss spoke to a clutch of Friday-night lit pilgrims.

The crowd of about 20—weekend nights aren't so good for bookish events—included hardcore mystery fans, a scattering of punkettes, a stripper, a porn writer, several graying English prof types and a comic artist and writer with multiple personalities, among others. Not bad, Vachss notes, but not as interesting as some gatherings he's drawn.

"There wasn't the racial diversity I usually see," he reflects. "No openly gay couples. No Vietnamese gangsters, which I've had here in Portland."

Clearly, though, Vachss has amassed a posse of ardent fans in his new home, proving that his heat-seeking prose finds targets far beyond its Big Apple birthplace. Vachss cites ample reasons for ditching New York: utter contempt for the Giuliani regime, decaying social services, yawning ethnic and class divisions. When it comes to his new domain, though, he's less forthcoming.

Is it possible that this indefatigable crusader and echt tough guy came to Oregon to get away from it all? For those tempted to suspect that he's here in search of a retreat or some find-the-cuddly-inner-me tranquility, Vachss offers a quick brush-off.

"Tell ‘em to go drink some more herbal tea, OK?" he says sharply. "If I was going to retire somewhere, it sure wouldn't be to fucking Portland. I mean, there's much nicer places in terms of all that ‘quality of life' crap than Portland. Sure, people are nicer here than in New York, but people are nicer anywhere than they are in New York."

After dispensing with the peace-love-and-harmony theory, he offers praise for his adopted state that sounds like it comes from a place much closer to his core.

"Oregon has always been a beacon for me," he says. "When you compare the way Oregon treats children and seems to feel about children, it's way ahead of the curve. Is it where it needs to be? No, but nowhere is."

There are other things he likes about Oregon, things conducive to certain aspects of the Vachss lifestyle. His pair of pitbulls, Honey and Pokey, for example.

"I kind of like living in a place where I can have my dogs without the complications of having them in the city," Vachss says. "And I kind of like living in a place where you can go to the store, buy a handgun, put it in your pocket and walk out."

That appreciation for Oregon's most libertarian traits jibes with Vachss' well-developed love of privacy. He lives somewhere outside the immediate metro area; he's registered to vote in Lincoln County but says that's not where he lives. "I would hate to have someone go to the vacant lot where I'm registered," he says.

Vachss, acerbic, direct and, after the ice is broken, oddly avuncular, can talk in volumes about topics he cares about. Just ask him about Honey and Pokey.

"I saw Honey the other day, sitting, looking up into the sky at a hawk, transfixed," he says, parent-proud. "She just instinctively knew that this was something hunting. I mean, she could spend her life doing that. There are hawks in New York, but it would be so rare to see one. I mean, that would just never happen.

"There was this one day, I left Pokey in the car for five minutes— maybe seven minutes—while I went into a store. And I come back out, and this old battleax is screaming and whining about how I'm killing my dog, how the dog is going to die in the sun. Meanwhile, the dog is demonstrating her vitality by frantically trying to get out of the car and tear this woman's head off, y'know?" He sounds delighted.

Vachss says Honey and Pokey thrive here—he thinks.

"You kind of can't tell with pitbulls, because they had a great time in a junkyard," he says. "They're not yuppies, y'know? They don't care if there's a mall."

Vachss' presence here may seem incongruous. Imagine, then, Burke's arrival in the self-regarding City of Roses. When Vachss split New York, he took his flint-eyed, gutter-dwelling antihero with him.

Vachss says he's already planned his next novel, which he needs to write in the next 90 days or so to make Knopf's Autumn 2000 hardcover roster. He reports no shortage of Portland-area margins frayed enough to provide Burke with the raw material he needs to pursue his several chosen trades.

"Some of the action's going to be set in O'Bryant Park downtown, I can tell you that," Vachss says, adding little else about the book.

So, while his creator's decision to set down stakes in this particular patch of dirt might remain something of a mystery, Burke's migration to Portland may salt the trail with a few clues.

"Everyone thinks I wanted to get out of New York because I was never a fan of it, despite being born and raised there," Vachss says. "I didn't have any pressing need to get out of town. People always think New York is a character in the books. New York is a character in Burke's life, so you may not ever get my reasons for leaving, but you'll get his."



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