Down 'N' Dirty with Andrew Vachss
by S. Clayton Moore
Originally published in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Vol. 8 No.1, Spring 2003
Andrew Vachss doesn't fight fair, but he's the first person to admit it. The attorney and sometimes novelist has been engaged in a war against child abuse for nearly 40 years. Coming back from a genocidal war in Africa in the early '70s, Vachss found a more violent and bitter fight happening in the back rooms of America. As a social worker and director of an institution for juvenile offenders, he was thrust into a battle not for hearts and minds but for the survival of the species. In his experience, everything that goes wrong in a person can be tied back to their treatment as a child, and he feels the predators that attack children must be held accountable. For him, the issues are as black and white as the text of his novels.
Vachss's first book was a successful textbook on juvenile prisons that failed to reach what he terms the "larger jury" of the American public. To conquer the gulf, he wrote Flood, which in 1985 introduced his mercenary private eye, Burke, a sensational hard-boiled antihero. This year, Vachss offers The Getaway Man (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, $11), a novel with a retro slant and a unique narrator.
I caught up with Vachss in Denver during a break in his book tour. He's not a man who's comfortable with the first-class trappings of fame, so we abandoned his hotel for Pete's Kitchen, a landmark greasy spoon that has been serving up grub since 1942, the year Andrew Vachss was born in New York City.
MAKING A CLEAN GETAWAY
The Getaway Man is a dramatic departure for Vachss. While the author has departed from his Burke series before, this book tells the very personal story of Eddie, a joyrider who comes up through the juvenile system to become a wheelman for bank jobs.
"It's really much more simple than people like to think," says Vachss about his dark paperback. "I wanted to write a book about innocence and the series just doesn't lend itself to that idea. The experiences I wanted to describe are not Burke's." In fact, Eddie is awfully naive by comparison. Through the course of his tale, he's taken advantage of by his unlawful employers and the women who love them. Unlike the Burke novels, there are willful shades of gray in Eddie's story.
"That was another point of focus—to look at things from multiple perspectives," Vachss explains. "It's impossible to read this book, unless you do it really quickly, and come away saying you know the answers. You actually don't know who lied to who and who betrayed who and who used who. It's never resolved. The only thing you do know is that Eddie is a true person and may be the only one."
Like his other books, Vachss sent The Getaway Man out into the world as one of his "Trojan horses," meant to infect the popular consciousness with his beliefs. While the concepts are subtle at first glance—one character's willful ignorance of her daughter's abuse comes to mind—they're very clear in a close reading.
"If they're not apparent, then I've failed," Vachss says of his suggestive themes. "The point of the story about Janine and Brenda is not child sexual abuse. It's about what constitutes kin. It's what constitutes bonding, because I believe that family is defined operationally and not biologically. I know that a person cast adrift will look to bond, will look to hook up, will look to connect, and that's what this book is about. It's about how an innocent person looking to connect will commit criminal acts, but Eddie is not really a criminal. I don't think anyone is going to perceive him as a criminal, but as an innocent man who commits crimes."
Vachss throws terms around like "bootlegger's turns" and other phrases from the lexicon of crime with the expertise of a man who's been working with criminals for decades. "I don't do research in preparing a book. I just live my life," he says. "I don't know of anything in the books that doesn't come from my own experience, but experience is a broad term. It's fair enough to say that I know getaway drivers, and one very well. That's not to say I drove getaway cars on bank jobs; it's not as if I did everything specifically that I've written about."
So is it just that Vachss knows the right people?
"Yes, but I've also had an awful lot of experiences," he says. "If you've been shot at, it doesn't have to be that you were shot on a certain street in Denver to write that authentically. You can take the experiences of being shot at and put it on this street in Denver and it would still be just as real."
Eddie spends much of his time watching films that feature spectacular driving, such as Bullit and Moonshine Highway, but that hobby is secondary to his first love, according to the author. "He's not really a fan of films at all. Driving means something to him and it's very important and very special. The closer a film comes to replicating how he feels about it, the more he's a fan of that film. But he has almost a hatred of films that trivialize what he does, or don't get it right. That's pretty much the way I feel about movies involving child detective work."
At the same time Vachss was translating his experiences into the pages of The Getaway Man, he was also making conscious choices about the image of the book. The cover, an almost garish tribute to the pulp fiction novels of his childhood, is a none-too-subtle jab at the critics for whom Vachss shares no kind words.
"I could have had a cover of a single leaf falling into a clear pool in the forest and gotten different reviews, but too bad for them," Vachss laughs. "What I wanted to do was say very clearly that the sort of literary idiots who think that only hardcovers can produce serious fiction are wrong. Paperback originals have produced some of the best American writing and it shouldn't be dismissed as genre or pulp. That's why I got into everybody's face with that cover, knowing full well that some lazy-ass book reviewers are going to review the cover."
The dichotomy between paperbacks and hardbacks is something that Vachss has carried with him for years. As a child who could only afford paperback novels, he still champions their value in a marketplace that has become overwhelmed with marketing schemes.
"I think paperback originals are unfairly maligned," Vachss says. "At the same time, I think pulp fiction is going both directions. It's fashionable now to say that Jim Thompson was a literary figure. I'm not going to participate in that debate, but in my opinion, writing is not judged on this sort of level playing field. It's not a meritocracy. There's no real working-class fiction, because to call something working-class fiction and then charge $35 to buy it. I wonder what audience we're talking to."
A GOOD GUY FOR A BAD WORLD
Burke is back as well in last year's Only Child (Knopf, $24). After years on the run following a brutal attack in Dead and Gone, he's back in New York and will appear in Vachss's next novel. "It has to do with this whole business of terrorism and I'll do it soon. We're talking about large-scale terrorism; I've written about so called 'internal terrorism' all along. I do think there are parallels and I'm going to show them, but I think that most people just don't get what is actually going on. I don't think they even understand why it is that there is an al-Qaeda. I'm only interested in causes and responses. I'm not interested in body counts."
I asked whether Burke is able to accomplish things outside the law that Vachss can't do as an attorney, and got a resounding no. "The best Burke can do is to eliminate a particular person or problem. He can't actually change anything and truly has not. He's not an outlet for my frustrations and I'm not living vicariously through him. He's not a release valve. He's a tool by which to communicate through a book. That's all he represents for me."
That may be the case, but for legions of Burke fans, the vigilante represents many different things. While some people simply hear a sympathetic voice, others drive Burke's customized Plymouth or own Neopolitan Mastiffs named Belle or Strega, after characters in the books.
"Clearly, some people very specifically identify with pieces of Burke," Vachss admits. "I get a lot of fan mail from old-school convicts who completely share his values across the board. Others identify with his feelings. By and large, you can emulate qualities that Burke has legitimately, but beyond that, what kind of hero is he? He's a good man in very small ways, but in large ways, he's not a very good man at all."
DAMN THE TORPEDOES
Vachss and his associates in the war against child abuse have made extraordinary progress in the past couple of years. Last year brought the significant legislative defeat of the incest exception in North Carolina, a legal loophole that essentially rewards predators for growing their own victims, as well as the first-ever lobbying organization dedicated exclusively to the protection of children. However the fight goes on for Vachss and the thousands of others who have dedicated themselves to the cause.
"There's probably been more progress in the past 30 years than in the previous 3,000, but it's not enough progress to say we're winning," Vachss says. "It's still not good to be a kid. For some, it's the most perfect and blissful time of their whole lives, and for other kids, it's a POW camp. It's still a country where more people are casually committed to the protection of whales than the protection of children. It's still a country where you can run for the highest office in the land and all you have to so is say 'I love kids and I respect the American family,' even if you don't."
In the same way he nails the language of criminals, Vachss also uses his legal training to zero in on the language of crime. "Journalists should not use euphemisms," Vachss says, calling "child abuse" an amorphous term. "Of all the euphemisms that journalists use, perhaps my least favorite is 'fondling.' Fondling? That's not what the term means. Molestation? That's not what the term means. Rape? Now that's what the term means: the sexual assault against a human being who can not consent. That's why I never use the term pedophile; I use the term predatory pedophile. The word pedophile means lover of children and it refers to a philosophical position, so to call someone a pedophile doesn't work for me. Predator works just fine because you can't have predator in context without prey."
TOUGH GUYS & FAIR FIGHTS
Vachss isn't conceited about his own position. He knows he is a soldier in a much bigger battle, and that his books are simply another weapon. "The truth is that I never know when the door is going to slam shut in my face, because I don't believe for a second that this is about anything other than profit and loss," he says. "I don't know how long I would survive the storms with the books themselves. My life teaches me that when the window opens, you head through it. You prepare yourself and when the opening comes, you throw the punch."
I know that Andrew Vachss isn't a cynic, because he cares too much about his work and the people involved in it, but I asked him if he considers himself a tough guy.
"If you mean that I'm not going to back up or step aside, you got that right," Vachss answers firmly. "I don't see how being a cynic makes you a tough guy. Most of the whining little bums that I see are cynics. They think someone on television who says nothing matters is a tough guy. I see that person as a weakling, because if you think that nothing is going to change, then you have all the excuse in the world for not fighting."
"Sometimes you have to fight when you know you're going to lose, right?" Vachss asks me. "You know you're going to lose and the best you can hope for is to hurt the other guy." Yeah, I tell him. But isn't it hard to go into a fight knowing you won't win, even if you make the other guy think twice?
"You don't have to fight fair!" Vachss says. "You want to fight me and you outweigh me by 100 pounds—I'm going to stick to your rules? I don't think so. And if you lose and say I didn't fight fair, what does that mean? I'm not going to get my name on a trophy? I'll be fine."
I'd hate to see the other guy.