Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Andrew Vachss - Warrior, Author, Lawyer

I just finished Terminal, Andrew Vachss's latest novel in his long-running Burke series, and it's a nice solid entry. I'm a longtime fan of the books and a supporter of the man and his mission, and given that his books support his practice as a child guardian in the New York state courts, and much goes to the PROTECT PAC, it's a great cause. The great cause, according to Vachss. His history with "child welfare," as we call it, is a long one. His career began tracing STDs for the government. Back then when they treated you, they'd ask for a list of partners, and send social workers to track the spread, so it could be stopped.

The trail often led to people who had sex with children, even babies. Usually their own, or a girlfriend's. That began a life-long fight, which recently culminated in getting the incest loophole closed- which recently succeeded in many states. The loophole is that if you sexually abuse your own child instead of a neighbors, most states treat it like a family problem instead of a crime, and the scumbag usually does little if any time. To keep "the family" together, as if such a relationship should be called "family."

From there he served in the relief effort in Biafra - the Darfur of the 60's- and worked in juvenile detention centers, which are still a breeding ground for violent crime. He wrote a book called The Lifestyle-Violent Juvenile about his findings about what sort of rehabilitation worked, but you don't reach people with a textbook. Vachss can explain it better than I can.

"There's a very specific formula for creating a monster," Vachss says. "It starts with chronic, unrelenting abuse. There's got to be societal notification and then passing on. The child eventually believes that what's being done is societally sanctioned. And after a while, empathy -- which we have to learn, we're not born with it -- cracks and dies. He feels only his own pain. There's your predatory sociopath." That's why Vachss posed for a recent publicity photo cradling his pit bull puppy. "You know what pit bulls are capable of, right?" he asks, referring to the animal's notorious killer reputation. "But they're also capable of being the most wonderful, sweet pets in the world, depending on how you raise them. That's all our children."

"Unleashing the Criminal Mind", San Francisco Examiner, July 12, 1990.

Mr. Vachss and Honey the pit bull

So, when you pick up a thriller by Andrew Vachss, you're not getting a potboiler like the rest of the best sellers. Burke is a hardened criminal who came up through the juvenile detention system and luckily made a family of his own on the way, one of bonds stronger than blood or DNA. In the beginning he was known for rescuing abused children and enacting revenge, but he always found a way to turn a profit out of it. His crew were hijackers sometimes, but mostly the stories were about the "long con," of how to get between a rich scumbag and his money, and put him in the grave if necessary. The story began with Flood, his breakthrough first novel, but I think the best are the next six that followed: Strega, Blue Belle, Hard Candy, Blossom, Sacrifice, and Down in the Zero. I started with the last in that run, and still think that's one of the best crime novels out there. Afterwards his novels got more of a thriller vibe, taking the basics from Hard Candy- a story about taking down a child trafficker- and repeating them with different villains, with different motives. My favorite is Strega, in which the mob is peripherally involved. The story has New York Italian authenticity without glorifying "La Mala Vita" at all.

Vachss does take on new and different subjects in the world of exploitation and predation, breaking the news before the media latches onto it. Unfortunately this sometimes makes things a little preachy, but the latest novel is thankfully devoid of that. The whole concept of Burke was meant as a Trojan horse, to get people talking and doing something about human-on-human predation. One of Vachss's big successes was creating international pressure to get Thailand to crack down on sex tourism, partly due to his Batman novel and comic, The Ultimate Evil, which brought a lot of attention to the Don't Buy Thai! campaign. He's used comic book artists often to illustrate his work and get the message to comic book readers as well.
Andrew Vachss; the eyepatch isn't fashion, it's the result of a chain in a childhood fight.

In Terminal, he's approached by an ex-con with cancer who has every con's dream, "that one big job." This one isn't fantasy land; it involves a dope peddler who knows the dirty secret of three rich boys, that they raped and murdered a girl when they were teens. While it's certainly a revenge fantasy against dirtbags from rich families who get away with murder or rape (not that we know any New England families like that) the book also delves into the reality of prison race gangs and why groups like the Latin Kings, Aryan Brotherhood, Bloods and others exist. Burke is a New Yorker, and Vachss never passes up an opportunity to criticize the City's current regime.

There's not a lot of action this time; at least until the end. Part of what makes Burke & crew so gripping is that they use their brains more than bullets. No criminal lasts this long with guns blazing all the time. The earlier novels still had the paranoid Burke with his levels of secrecy, but he was still a little hot-headed; now he's an older man who's lost many friends and family. He's calm, collected, patient and ruthless, but still human, albeit a damaged one. Vachss may give us an anti-hero in Burke, but he's no Ripley or the kind of sociopath that appeals to our darker side. Unless that dark side is vengeance against those who thrive on exploiting others.

I enjoyed the novel. Like Richard Stark's Parker series (probably best known through the movie Payback) they are essentially heist stories; we get the setup, and much of the story is planning how to rip off the dirtbag and avenge their victims, though that part is usually unspoken. The one weakness with Terminal and many of his later novels is that the third act and denouement is often short and laconic; there's always a good payoff, but sometimes you don't want the story to end. Burke and his family- Max the Silent, the mute martial artist, Mama and her Chinatown criminal empire, the Prof, the Mole, Michelle and Terry, and relative newcomers like Clarence and Gateman- are hard to leave. He imbues them with a humanity, and even though you can tell its his words coming out of their mouths sometimes, once you're familiar with them the 17 novels may not be enough to keep you satisfied. You're always waiting for the next one.

He's written other novels, some noir like The Getaway Man, and my favorite, Shella, which is from the POV of a sociopath trying to save the one woman he can connect to. Two Trains Running was a foray into James Ellroy-style political corruption, which I haven't read yet.
I met Mr. Vachss (pronounced like tax) back in '99 or so in Madison, Wisconsin during a book tour. It was a 5 hour drive from Minneapolis, but it was an honor meeting him. I'd written him earlier that year, after my petition to keep a child murderer in prison succeeded.

click letter for readable version

The killer was now wheelchair-bound and wanted early release, after abducting a child from a church social, raping and killing her. Thankfully the parole board did the right thing, a rare occurrence for Minnesota, the bleeding heart state. When you have a violent offender like that, you don't depend on ankle monitors and sex offender registries to keep him from his victims.
There are individuals who are so toxic that their presence threatens us all. They self-identify by their conduct. And we cannot protect ourselves from monsters by calling them by another name.
If prison cannot rehabilitate, it can at least incapacitate. If we cannot transform sexual predators, we certainly can contain them. -- Andrew Vachss, How to Handle Sexual Predators.
Unfortunately it is a lot easier to make headway with "Protect the Children" legislation than meaningful change that would staunch the flow of these predators into society. As a society based on Puritanism, we want our prisoners punished. There's even an idiot out in Arizona who makes them wear pink panties. We joke about prison rape, and expect it to happen as part of the punishment. This applies in juvenile prison as well, even by the guards. Spare the rod and spoil the child, after all. If we don't rehabilitate them at a young age, we're creating our own monsters and will be reaping what we sow for generations to come.

It doesn't help that the Roman Catholic Church, of which I was formerly a parishioner, was until recently sitting on cases until the statute of limitations ran out (signed off by the current Pope, no less). Bill Maher put it well- if Joey Ratz was the CEO of a group of day care centers instead of a religious leader, he'd be visiting the U.S. under extradition, for a life term.

Join PROTECT and make a difference. These issues aren't even on the politicians' radar. The NRA and AARP know how to get politicians to listen, and PROTECT has started off strong. They deserve your support.

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