Reinventing Vachss
Adam Dunn interviews Andrew Vachss on his new novel, Two Trains Running

By Adam Dunn, Cobrapost News Features
Originally published in the Cobrapost, January 06, 2006


The book is a radical departure from his previous work on every level. Nearly twice the length of the annual installments of his long-running “Burke” series, Two Trains Running is a period piece, set in a “border town” of an unnamed state in 1959, on the eve of the 1960 presidential election. The book is literally bursting with vividly-drawn characters, far more than any previous novel Vachss has published. He has, perhaps necessarily, switched to the third-person narrative voice to keep all these characters in play after two decades of first-person storytelling. Finally, in a clear signal to a jaded book trade, (which long ago branded Vachss a “hard-boiled” noir novelist with nowhere else to go,) Two Trains Running was published by the Pantheon imprint, a division of the Knopf Publishing Group separate from the Knopf and Vintage imprints (which have historically published his hardcovers and paperbacks, respectively).

That’s quite a change for a writer long seen by critics as being excessively dark, excessively paranoid, and excessively focused on child abuse. For Vachss to break out of the niche in which he’s been pigeonholed for years is no small feat. It’s literally the story of how a writer grows, refines his storytelling abilities, “moves to the next level” (book publishing, like the music and film industries, abounds in clichés).

How did this happen?

Vachss will explain. He hopes you will have questions. But —

*

“Don’t touch anything.”

Vachss looks comfortable, seated amidst teetering stacks of files. A practicing attorney who represents children exclusively, he seems quite at home while on the job. Or, as he is at the moment, describing why he chose the present time to write a large, complex novel revolving around the 1960 presidential election, when the motives for its genesis clearly had to do with a far more recent one.

“Nothing I do is an accident,” Vachss says, adjusting his trademark eye patch. (Yes, it’s real. He is puzzled when people ask if it’s not, as though he would willingly sacrifice depth perception just to make a fashion statement.) “I really thought that this last election [2004] was the perfect springboard to writing the book. The election that I’m writing about [1960] had the highest percentage of voter turnout in the history of America. Never beaten before, never beaten since.” Now this is crucial. The setting of Two Trains Running is a town near unnamed state borders, although northern, southern, and Appalachian elements are clearly visible. The town, called “Locke City” (gamblers’ parlance for “sure thing”), is a wholly-controlled political entity, a safe vice outpost built for the common man. “Border location makes it a more influential place, because people from all over come there and trade there and traffic there,” Vachss explains. “It’s much harder to keep a population count in a border town, which means you can deliver more votes than there are voters.”

This makes Locke City highly attractive to outsiders, and two competing factions (one Italian, one Irish) are looking for ways to usurp Beaumont’s rule. In response, Beaumont hires a freelance killer named Walker Dett to run them off. But it soon becomes clear that taking control of Locke City may in fact be secondary to swinging its vote toward JFK, and that gang war will only upset progress in that direction. Each of the principal groups begins playing the other, as well as a ring of secondary groups including black and white street gangs, well-armed black militants and fringe white supremacists.

A qualifying word is due here. Vachss does not deal in stereotypes. It is not his intention to tar fragmented groups of individuals with a common brush based on similarities in ideology; Vachss judges individuals by their conduct, not the cards they carry. To use just one example, the white-power whackos in Two Trains Running do not fall into one neat category of “Klan.”

“Whether you call it credit, blame, or attribution, too much is directed at the Klan per se,” he says. “There were a whole lot of racist whites who were, for a variety of reasons including fear, violently resisting what they saw as outside agitators coming in and changing their way of life. To say they were all ‘Klansmen’ may be a generic way of describing them, but to think that they were actual members is wrong.”

Moreover, Vachss maintains segregation exists among the racist groups themselves, then as now. “If you look today, there’s dozens of organizations claiming to be ‘the Klan,’” he explains. “The American Nazi Party thought of the Klan as [potential] shock troops, but they certainly weren’t going to be the theoreticians of the new movement.”

This is fodder for a whole other article unto itself (a happy consequence of interviewing Vachss), the thought of “second-class racists”: “William Pierce, who was the head of the National Alliance, which was certainly the most significantly organized so-called White Power movement in America, dismissed skinheads out of hand in speeches that he gave as thugs and morons.”

Perhaps there is another reason the timing of this book is no accident: among others, Edgar Killen, 79, was tried for the 1964 murders of the Civil Rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner forty-one years after the killings. On June 23, 2005, he was sentenced to sixty years in prison.

*

Watching over all the simmering developments in Locke City is the FBI. Hoover’s G-men do not fare well in this novel; infiltrating and arming gangs, running round-the-clock surveillance on individuals, even picking off perceived troublemakers as necessary. “The fact is that the FBI’s spying on everybody,” Vachss says. “They’ve got people riding in [Klan] death cars, they’ve got people dealing guns to black revolutionaries, and they’re being spied on.” This is one of many frightening observations Vachss makes in Two Trains Running: that the FBI may quite easily be manipulated by other employers with other agendas. The book is broken into aphoristic chapter fragments labeled with the same sort of headers used on surveillance tapes, so that readers are automatically pulled into the merry-go-round of watchers and watched.

But even the FBI, like the outlaw groups it shadows (and infiltrates), is also undergoing a process of consolidation, a sort of rising outlaw consciousness that directly links it to the criminals it seeks to control. This is the point of contact between the underworld and over-world, between the ranks on both sides of the law, where greed is the prime mover, and coercion the common tongue. As Mack Dressler, a loose-talking FBI agent with no illusions about company policy, lectures a young colleague: “The Bureau needs to know who’s buying guns, and the best way to know that is for us to be in the gunrunning business.”

Every single faction in Two Trains Running is consciously undergoing a process of consolidation, and the leader of each is given ample soliloquy space to describe his forward-looking views. The leaders of the IRA cell looking to sway Beaumont to back Kennedy discuss the importance of unions in rigging elections; the mafioso looking to push Beaumont out waxes portentously on the potential of pornography; Beaumont’s own protégé sees a bright future in the narcotics trade. The difference is that each character’s pipe dream will eventually morph into a historical reality, which Vachss can readily list. Pick one—be it mobilization of the Irish vote for JFK, Deep Throat, the growing popularity of marijuana and the increase of opium/morphine/heroin trafficked into the US in the 1960s and ‘70s—all eventually came to pass in one form or another. All Vachss does is offer his proposed starting point for it all.

This odd self-scrutinizing prognostication extends even to Walker Dett, a faction of one, who confesses a path of “atonement” for his time spent in the employ of the FBI, a penance which manifests itself in mass murder. (Consider the play on words in Dett’s name, do the math when he offers you the time left on his penance and where and when exactly that will put him in US history, and remember that nothing Vachss does is an accident.) Dett sees his work as a disruption, his killings as logs thrown in the path of an onrushing train—one of the two from whence the book’s title derives (okay, there is that 1951 Muddy Waters tune as well). The trains have been running on parallel tracks, but in Locke City, 1959, the circumstances have proved right for the sort of confluence of criminal self-awareness and physical consolidation, the consequences of which reverberate to this day. This is best summed up by mob boss Dioguardi (“who’s supposed to be stupid, but is clearly not,” Vachss puts in,) who debunks the myth that ‘you only do business with your relatives.’” Vachss is plotting a point in history in which “doing business outside the tribe” became unwritten law. This explains the somewhat contrary position of the black militant leadership willing to buy guns from whites (unknowingly, the FBI): “They may hate us, brothers, but no white man ever minded making money off us. Mister Green always going to be the boss.”

Consolidation, for all parties involved, is the ultimate means to the ultimate end of complete control. “Basically, it means every single criminal enterprise faces its greatest risk not from outside but from inside,” Vachss says. “As you reach out, you increase risk. To consolidate, to them, means to encircle, so that you can become impregnable. Every time you reach, your perimeter gets wider and wider. If what’s inside isn’t completely consolidated—that is, solid, guaranteed, all of a piece—it can be a crack in the foundation, and that eventually brings down the roof. As it in fact did, in continuing criminal enterprises in America, time and time again.”

This is what Vachss sees in Locke City, 1959, through the eyes of his characters: “They were seeing what in fact was going to come.”

*

Two Trains Running also shows Vachss’ writing abilities have evolved to the point where he can drop a lean, successful series in favor of a complex “historical” novel without drowning his story in period detail. That is a tough thing for a writer with a long-established sales history to accomplish. It is an even taller order for his publisher to pull it off.

“I’ve watched his novels become more complicated, deal with issues he hadn’t dealt with before,” says J. Edward Kastenmeier, who has been Vachss’ editor since 1997. “I think the time was right to do something completely different. Two years ago we published The Getaway Man [2003]. Andrew was already at that point experimenting with his voice as a writer, trying new turf … I think that he’s reached the point where he had a lot to say that I don’t think he could work into the [Burke] series. He needed to find a new outlet.”

Given his long publishing history with Knopf, such a step could prove difficult, if not hazardous, to Vachss’ literary career. He has already been bounced around the majority of imprints within the Knopf Publishing Group division of Random House (Knopf doing his hardcovers, Vintage/Anchor his paperback reprints and originals). But when Vachss broached the idea for Two Trains Running, the KPG powers-that-be had to decide how best to signal to the trade that Vachss was changing direction (without changing houses, the time-honored method for an author to switch gears).

This would ultimately go far beyond the cliché adorning the front of the Two Trains Running advance-marketing brochure (“if you think you know Vachss… think again”). The decision was made to move the new novel to Pantheon for hardcover publication, and to pull out all the stops. Besides the brochure and planned BEA signing, Pantheon made three (yes, three) distinct galleys, each for a separate target audience, a most audacious and expensive maneuver. “We haven’t done an advance reader’s edition for a hardcover for Andrew in years,” says Kastenmeier. “This has been a complete break: it’s different people involved; it’s a different strategy. We’re positioning him in a different way. We want people to realize that Andrew is a great American novelist; he’s talking about the issues that made America what it is.”

“He’s not constrained at all in this book. I think that really shows, just the scale and scope and ambition of it. This reflects a writer, not necessarily a lawyer who writes,” adds Janice Goldklang, publishing director for Pantheon.

In toto: Vachss has written something he thinks is anything but Just Another Crime Novel, and Pantheon is backing his play.

Indeed, Two Trains Running is big and roomy enough for Vachss to truly spread his wings. From descriptions of car mufflers of the time, to the price of a bottle of whiskey, to contemporary street fighters’ jargon and weaponry, Vachss recreates the seamy underside of the coming Camelot/Great Society, the subterranean rumblings of which were just beginning to be felt on the surface. Moreover, he has peopled his 1959 with a cast larger than any he has penned before, a staggering array of the dangerous and the damaged. Drawing on his vast experience with juvenile offenders, child abuse victims, and as a federal investigator of STDs, Vachss conveys many previously unspoken opinions through these new characters. The fates of John Dillinger and Al Capone, for example. “These are the types of things that Andrew has always been interested and wanted to communicate through his writing,” says Kastenmeier. “I think here he has a much larger palette to do so.”

The novel’s employment of the third-person past tense allows Vachss’ characters more room to define themselves than they have in the past, although it is always clear who their creator is. The most inflammatory example of this, sure to draw critical venom, is the ongoing incestuous relationship between Beaumont and his sister Cynthia, who themselves were horribly abused as children. But Vachss insists he does not “invent” his characters and their backgrounds out of thin air. “There are cases, and it’s wrong to deny them, where brutally abused children turn to each other for comfort from the abuse,” Vachss says, his voice suddenly dropping through the sub-basement. “Sometimes those relationships are sexual. I’m not talking about a child imitating the oppressor and sexually abusing the weaker child. In this case, you don’t know when the actual incest began. But the impetus for it was the horrific toxicity of their home environment … the only safe air [they could breathe] was the air they shared with each other.”

It is a source of bemusement to Vachss that people (particularly his critics) do not yet understand his view that child abuse (“domestic terrorism”) affects everything else, particularly since he summed it up concisely 23 years ago, in an essay titled “Child Abuse: A Ticking Bomb.” First published in a law journal in 1982, it has been posted for years on Vachss’ extensive website, The Zero, and has been oddly ignored. Readers (and reviewers) of Vachss could learn much by simply reading it.

*

And that, in the final analysis, is where the greatest potential of Two Trains Running lies, not merely in being a complex, richly-textured novel in its own right, but one which may go further than any of its predecessors in communicating its author’s views to a jaded, category-minded industry, and to a reading public grown used to being spoon-fed its entertainment with no thought required. Vachss wants readers to question, to reread and think, “Could this really have happened?” If he can make readers do that, he says, he will have accomplished his mission for this book. His publisher’s mission might be seen as slightly tangential to that: aside from repositioning Vachss in the trade, Pantheon hopes that this novel will clarify Vachss’ views to a greater and more diverse readership beyond devotees of the Burke series.

Two Trains Running certainly has the potential to do this, although it’s a big gamble. Vachss is doing no less than taking aim at a collective villain far above pedophiles and maniacs: the government, a vast amorphous coercion machine, whose very figurehead (the president) obviously doesn’t have both hands on the wheel. (“Governments have committed crimes. I’ve never heard of a government that didn’t commit a crime.”) And Vachss’ remedy (or at least his last line of defense) against this is: Journalism.

Now, that may surprise some, but thinking it through, it should not. After all, for anyone familiar with Vachss’ career, imagining him as an investigative reporter is not such a conceptual leap. His writings can be seen as chapters in an ongoing polemic against what he sees as the social ills of his day: rampant child abuse, futile methods to prevent juvenile offenders from becoming career adult ones, trafficking in human organs, mistreatment of chronic pain sufferers—the list goes on and on. And before you label Vachss as just another paranoiac, ask yourself why he might think what he does. It’s no fabrication to say the government goes to great lengths to control the information flow; on 13 March 2005, the New York Times reported on the Bush administration’s insertion of “pre-packaged” news stories into the media feeding stream via paid PR firms and “reporters”. In Garry Trudeau’s syndicated comic strip “Doonesbury,” the reporter Roland Hedley has just been tapped by the new Minister of Toady Affairs to infiltrate the White House press pool in order to throw cold water on inflammatory questions. Can this get even worse?

“Sure.”

Vachss uses the character of Jimmy Procter to make his point. Procter, another faction of one, (and in some ways Dett’s opposite, using printed words instead of pistols as his weapons,) is a sleazy but dedicated reporter whose stubborn way of getting his story out have landed him in the FBI’s crosshairs. But despite his relatively small number of page appearances, Procter’s role in Two Trains Running cannot be overstated. Procter and his ilk of diehards who will stop at nothing to get to the bottom of a story, Vachss claims, are the last guardians of truth. And their craft is in trouble.

“I look around every day and I feel journalism could die,” Vachss says, in a tone that might someday be taken for sadness. “This thing in Atlanta?” he says referring to the Nicholson case, “I don’t monitor news 24 hours a day, but I haven’t seen anybody yet ask the question, ‘How did that first jury hang?’ Where were the journalists? They’re all taking the same news feed … I think that if journalism dies, democracy dies. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be coverage of stuff that I [personally] find nonsensical. But there’s gotta be, in generation after generation, the reporters who say, ‘Truth is all that matters. I’ll pay what it costs to get the truth. I’ll pay what it costs to get it out.’”

For Vachss, this is contingent upon individual conduct. Subsidizing news organizations is not an answer. “I feel the same way about subsidizing art … Art loses all its power to be subversive when it also has to apply for a grant. Truth-telling is about as subversive as you can get. Quote unquote. I’m saying that; I believe that. It’s the most subversive act you can do, to give people the truth. ‘Cause if the truth doesn’t have the power to subvert wrongdoing, then nothing does.”


Originally published at Cobrapost.com, January 06, 2006