Author Seeks Reform Through Pages of Novels
By Dan Pearson, Correspondent
Originally published in The Daily Southtown, Wednesday, October 24, 2001
The first thing you should know about author and attorney Andrew Vachss is how to correctly pronounce his name.
It rhymes with "ax," which is quite appropriate as this intense and sometimes intimidating native New Yorker introduces readers to often dark and dangerous worlds. Vachss intuitively employs the genre of very hard-boiled crime fiction to get across his very serious and very real agenda of social reform in the areas of child abuse, sexual predators and youthful offenders.
"If I don't have it both ways, I don't have it at all, "said Vachss, 58, who refers to his compelling and candidly grim crime novels as "Trojan horses."
On a recent visit to Chicago to promote his latest novel "Pain Management" (Knopf $24), which explores, in part, the search for missing children and the volatile subject of how America fails to deal with the intractable suffering of terminal medical patients, Vachss explained his approach for combining cutting-edge crime fiction with vital social issues.
"I am trying to get you to swallow a meal, and all I care about is the spice that I am putting in there. But if the rest of the meal is not good, you are not going to finish it," said Vachss.
"If I don't come to you with a certain amount of narrative force, you are not going to read the books to the end. If I can get you to keep reading, whether you like it or not or intend it or not, you have swallowed the message."
A relevant message that the author, who maintains a nearly encyclopedic Web site, hopes will anger and activate readers.
"Click on the resources button and you will see the largest compendium of issues involving child protection than you will find anyplace. It is not an ego site. It's not here's my picture and read my books; www.vachss.com is intended to be a service site, which is why it takes no paid advertisement despite the huge amount of traffic.
"For me, (writing) is a weapon in a war I have chosen to fight," said Vachss, who ran the Uptown Community Association in Chicago in 1970.
"The writing career is an organic extension of the other work that I do. It is a way of getting a bigger jury than I would ever get in a courthouse," said Vachss who initially turned to fiction after the lack of success with a textbook on violent juvenile offenders he had written.
"I write about crime and violence not only as it impacts children, but as children turn and impact others with it."
Vachss firmly believes the real way to interdict the adult criminals he was dealing with in court was by realizing the connection between today's victim and tomorrow's predator.
A former federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, a social services caseworker, a volunteer in Biafra and a director of a maximum-security prison for youthful offenders, Vachss has found a popular forum for his social concerns since the 1985 publication of "Flood," the first book to chronicle the underworld exploits of a fascinating ex-con known simply as Burke.
Named for an infamous 19th century Scotch grave-robber and serial killer, Burke was raised by the state of New York and tutored in prison. Armed with a near-pathological hatred of child molesters, the often lethal Burke operates in New York City as a scam artist and contract killer with the love and support of a nuclear family of his own choosing.
They include Max the Silent, a hearing-impaired Asian martial artist, the Mole, a reclusive Jewish techno-genius who lives underground in a heavily protected Brooklyn scrap yard, Michelle, a stylish transsexual call girl, the Prof, a wise and diminutive African-American fellow prison inmate who always speaks in rhyme and a 175-pound Neapolitan mastiff named Pansy.
"It is a pulp setting to people whose life experiences are limited," said Vachss, whose fiction is often derived from his own life experiences.
"Labels come easy but definitions come hard. I've read pulp magazines, but I don't see the resemblance. I have a short story coming out in the December Playboy. Am I a Playboy writer? I write for Parade magazine. Am I a Parade writer? I think people confuse the forum with the person. You might as well say I am a truck driver, because I can drive trucks."
Set in Portland, Ore., "Pain Management" is the 13th book in the popular Burke series which finds the intrepid anti-hero operating far from home without his usual safety net of close friends.
The current novel was inspired by the overwhelming reaction to "Dope Fiend," a powerful short story by Vachss which was published in his 1999 collection "Everybody Pays." It deals with the unnecessary torment caused by official government drug policies that refuse a dying person more morphine in order to prevent them from becoming addicted.
"People wrote saying, 'You are talking about this exactly happening in my life.' I truly knew of some people in whose lives these kind of pain management issues had surfaced but not that this was such a universal issue in America, and that is the genesis of the book."
Vachss says the response to his fiction is global, from people who say 'you saved my life,' to those who want to take his.
Vachss said he has received death threats numbering in the "hundreds, without question" in his career.
"But I don't know if the same freak is writing all the letters. I kind of doubt it, unless he is really well traveled," said Vachss, pausing to express a rare smile.
Vachss takes a certain pride in being named on an enemies list of the Web site for the International Pedophile Liberation Front.
Vachss said most of the "Burke" novels have been optioned for movies, but to date not one has reached production owing to their being "too downbeat and too upsetting."
"They have hired directors, they've commissioned screenplays and paid for them, they have put producers in place, they formed production companies, yet nothing. Finally one studio, which spent a fortune and then another fortune, in total desperation asked me to write a screenplay. And I did. They called me in and said 'we read your screenplay, and it is exactly like your books.' Clearly that is not what they wanted in a screenplay and hence that is not what they want from me. I don't have a way to Hollywoodize what I do."
Operating in the real world at ground zero, Vachss says he doesn't have to do any research to write his books.
"There is no need to do research. If you spend five minutes looking at my background, why would I need to do any conventional research, why would I have to hire a researcher and go to a library. I have not got enough years left in my life to (deal with) the material I actually possess already.
"The first novel I had written (in 1973) was rejected by every publisher on the grounds that it was impossible, over-the-top, bizarre pulp. The way that (still unpublished) book ended was a deeply disturbed and disaffected young man loaded a duffel bag full of weapons and went to the high school and killed everybody there.
"Where did I get that from. My sick mind? Or from working with disturbed and disaffected young people who said to me that's what they were going to do someday?"
Asked whether the Burke novels provide an opportunity for exorcising any of the things that make him furious, Vachss replied that it was not a catharsis for him.
"This is doing my work," he said. "If anything, it is a re-experiencing, which is even more unpleasant the second time. There is no way I am ridding myself of demons by writing about this stuff. "
Vachss bristles when asked if Burke, by confronting and eliminating those that do evil, gets to do on the page what this tireless crusader would deep down like to do in real life.
"This isn't going to be the vigilante speech, is it? Burke isn't free at all. Burke is a miserably depressed human being, oppressed by his circumstances, constrained very much by his life whose redeeming characteristic is his absolutely unstoppable love for his family of choice. Something again I share with him. And, who, if the wrong buttons are pushed, turns homicidal.
"I've had much more impact on child abuse (as a lawyer) generally that Burke can hope to have in a million lifetimes. I save more lives in a year than Burke can even conceptualize actually saving. All you are talking about is homicide. All you are talking about is that some people die. But you don't kill child abuse. You can kill a child abuser. But you don't want to confuse the two. This isn't Batman."
Vachss should know. He is also the author of the 1995 novel "Batman: The Ultimate Evil," in which Gotham City's cape crusader battled child abusers.
"Did I borrow a comic book character to invade the consciousness of people who read comic books with some hard material? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Sure. Would I do another 'Batman?' Not in this lifetime."
As for the eye patch that gives this outspoken writer an additional air of both menace and mystery, Vachss can't fathom why so many people have any interest in it at all.
"It is a not a fashion statement. I got hit in the face with a chain when I was a child, the muscles got severed, they were tied together into square knots. ... If this (good) eye went, I couldn't read with (the patched eye), but I wouldn't need a seeing eye dog to get across the road," he confides. "If I didn't have to wear it, I wouldn't."
Copyright © 2001 The Sun-Times Co.