Andrew Vachss. I've been reading him for about ten years, since I found Flood and Strega in a secondhand store. Nobody except Carol O'Connell does the 'sociopath hero' better. He walks some fine lines, Vachss does, just like his Baby Boy Burke. Between informative writing and tedious didacticism, between honest sentiment and the maudlin. Between repetition that develops and redundancy. And his fiction moves through a borderland where grotesque and horrifying sex crimes must be described, but the description must only horrify, without an instant of titillation. It's as hazardous a trail for a writer as any of Burke's trips through the mean city. And some readers have been disappointed by the occasional slips and failures.
Vachss is always speaking to two audiences, his regular readers or fans and everybody else. And it's the 'everybody else,' the unconverted, that he aims at most directly, because his writing is, after all, a vehicle, not at end in itself. Vachss calls his fictions 'Trojan horses.' Precisely. If you are part of the inner circle, the devotees who read the books as fast as they appear, it's easy to get impatient when he turns for a moment to address the other audience, the first-timers. So we nod impatiently when he explains again about the hippies upstairs that he bums his phone off of, and the 'Don't Buy Thai!' stuff gets repetitious. But not if you've never read another Burke novel. Vachss assumes the new reader who won't be back, so he covers essential ground in every book, and the message, the war against child abuse in the belly of the beast, is important enough to Vachss that it has to be there, just in case you don't come back. Vachss has a mission, to root up and destroy crimes against children, and it's more important than catering to the preferences and familiarity of his faithful readers.
I was first attracted to Vachss' books by his ability to reduce the description of a sex crime to its violent content, purging it of any residual eroticism. Vachss' universe is extraordinarily black and white. Extraordinary because it is so carefully examined and categorized that it is difficult to quibble with him about it. Without an instant of erotic empathy with homosexuals, Burke has no prejudice against them either. His beef is with the pederast, the pedophile, whose sexual drive is directed at children. It's the abuse of children, again, not the 'sexual orientation,' that matters. The villains in a Burke novel are self-absorbed sociopaths, makers of snuff films, buyers of children as sexual toys, serial killers. The point-of-view in a Burke novel is never from inside the criminal. Burke doesn't care what's inside the criminal. He kills rabid dogs. Rabies can't be cured.
It's easy to assume that Burke's vigilantism represents Vachss' own values. As he said when questioned about this in a nationally televised interview, "What does [Burke] change?" Burke is powerless in the context of the whole problem, white knight saving the world "one starfish at a time." Vachss has dedicated his own career to larger goals. His web site, The Zero, is huge, well-maintained, and relentlessly focused on his crusades. This link allows you to search a wealth of legal and informational resources relating to sex crimes, crimes against children, animal rights, and other issues Vachss is engaged with. For a complete list, use the menu link at the bottom of this page.
The publication order of the Burke books is also chronological. Vachss has not done a 'prequel' yet. This is where it all starts. Vachss created the fascinating hustler/PI Burke (first name 'Baby Boy'; that's all it says on the birth certificate) in this revenge thriller with a climax that we're so wound up for we don't even notice that only takes a few seconds. Max, Mama, the Prof, and Pansy are all introduced, and we get the basic details of Burke's life, woven through the story of his search for a martial artist who likes to abuse children. The strength of Vachss' stories is often in the subplots and 'sidebars,' like how Flood got her scar and the 'interview with Mr. Goldor.' Each Burke novel introduces some new characters and develops the world-story. In the first book, Burke's love for Flood is established and it remains, an unfinished story we hope to see resolved, through nearly a dozen following novels.
My pick for the best book of the series. It has the garrulous narrative quality that Vachss eventually abandoned for a laconic, minimalist prose that often descends into self parody.
Burke is hired by a spoiled mob princess to find a photograph of a little boy. The opening score, the intimidation of a sleazeball Peeping Tom and one of Vachss' best jump starts to a novel, is also for her. Although the central action is the pursuit and demolition of a child pornography ring, the most interesting plot development is the evolution of Strega's story. Throw in the child abuse treatment program, modelled on real programs Vachss has worked with, the pedophile 'mentor' with friends in high places (who will become a continuing character as well), and the Mafia link; you have a plot of dizzying complexity that comes together with the balance of a perfect meal.
But you can get the plot elsewhere; it isn't the point. The mob princess, the Strega or witch of the title, is one of Vachss' most fully realized characters. From the moment she jogs into the scene until the terrible revelation with which the novel ends, this is her story, and it is a measure of the strength of her character that she returns again and again, as the series of novels progresses, her strange, perverse relationship with Burke twisting and shifting.
Vachss' stock characters are wonderful, an 'A' team of society's losers and each of them a gem hidden in the garbage of the New York streets. We cheer them on through each plot. But it is Strega, the wounded snake, who owns the stage when she appears. Read her book.
This is the most sentimental and melodramatic of the novels. When the book came out, it earned its way by moving forward the stories of Burke and Flood, Michelle, Max and Immaculata. Like so many "tough guys," Vachss/Burke doesn't handle tenderness very well. Burke meets a child of incest, Bellesweet and not very bright, loyal and courageous, and in need of his help. They fall in love. But Belle is not, for all Burke's attention, a very appealing character, and Burke's treatment of her is strangely ambivalent. Although he is repulsed by explicit dominance behavior, Burke and Belle engage in some less than "equal" sex, and she is embarrassingly, often gratuitously submissive. It is a twist Vachss will return to in Dead and Gone even less appealingly.
The book doesn't pull together the way Strega and Flood do. In fact, Belle's story is secondary to the concern over Max's situation. He's being stalked by a martial arts fanatic who is also the bodyguard for a sleazy snuff film operation, the Ghost Van that Burke has been hired to stop. But if the love story is forgetable, Burke's confrontation with the martial arts demon, Mortay, is a grand piece of suspense writing, as crisp and compact as the death of 'Cobra' in Flood, and it more than makes up for the almost surreal melodrama of the closing pages.
Hard Candy jolts life into a series flagging after the sentimental excesses of Blue Belle. After a bit too much of the same old nouveau noir, the Burke world was becoming stale when Hard Candy introduced two new characters and some more fascinating back story, about Burke's childhood. Anyone who finds Burke amoral and sociopathic is invited to meet Wesley, the monster who was his model for surviving the juvenile homes and urban jungles. And even more frightening than Wesley, the little girl Candy, all grown up and corrupt as an untreated wound. The fourth book delivers some pieces of Burke's childhood.
The action flows around a New-Age cult that turns out to be a baby farm. (Baby organs are big business; had you heard?) The main story, however, pulls together threads from the previous three novels and introduces Burke's nemesis, Wesley, seemingly invented to give an "in your face" to the folks who consider Burke 'noir.' (In fact, Wesley was the original central character of Vachss's work, but commercial necessity shifted the focus to the more humanized Burke. You can read Vachss' first, unpublished novel, A Bomb Built in Hell, Wesley's story, at Vachss' web site, and Shella, an early novel published after Vachss' reputation was established, is the story of a Burke-like character as frightening as Wesley.)
Strega is back in Hard Candy, and her Uncle Julio, and Wesley has a beef with Burke for killing Mortay in Blue Belle. As always, the emphasis is on Burke's exploration of his own edges and pain. The Candy character, a girlfriend from Burke's youth, will suggest some connections to Mickey Spillane. Don't be fooled.
If you want to know what the excitement is all about, Blossom is not the place to meet Burke. Still unanchored by the death of Belle, he ends up in the midwest, a long way from home. He's come to help out an ex-con buddy whose nephew is the prime suspect in a string of serial killings. Burke falls in with a waitress named Blossom, a typical Burke love interest in that she is physically flawed (the first physical description of her makes her sound eminently forgettable) and personally fascinating. The focus here is on action rather than the moral issues so many Vachss readers are bothered by. As with a few of the other Burke novels, the capture of the villain is strangely anticlimactic, almost an afterthought.
Kirkus Reviews finally lost patience with Vachss on this one. Vachss' "spike hard prose and action are blunted by a moralism that smugly sets Burke up as the most obnoxiously self-righteousand increasingly one-notejudge, jury, and executioner since Mike Hammer." This is a bit like complaining because you can't get pizza at a Chinese restaurant; one is left a bit puzzled how to respond. Of course, James Ellroy's eschewal of 'moralism' has made him the darling of intellectual relativists everywhere. Vachss wears his heart on his sleeve, about where Ellroy wears his authentic Primo Carnera plastic testicles. Second only to Strega, this is one of the best Burkes.
The action in Sacrifice begins with "a pimp who needs muscle to mug a blind man." Burke is not smug about the guy, though he is about such paragons of American business ethics as lawyers, politicians, and yuppies, literary or not. The territory here is pretty righteous stuff, guys. Read the Ellis kid if you want moral 'ambiguity' (it's no accident, I think, that Vachss echoes the faux maudlin Less Than Zero in one of his titles), or angry Mamma's boy Ellroy if you'd rather just skip the morals entirely.
In the Burke series, Sacrifice is a turning point of sorts. Burke's monotone righteousness is here, all right, and Vachss takes his vigilantism into some territory of dubious simplicity, ending the book with a deadly assault on a private home intentionally lethal (and reminiscent of the end of Strega, except that the deaths there are accidental, or at least unpremeditated). But the apocalyptic battle that ends this novel is nothing like the romantic silliness of Blue Belle.
It is one of the better books in the series precisely because Vachss punishes Burke, with a brilliantly executed, Hitchcockian plot twist, for that righteous single-mindedness. The story circles around an eight-year-old boy who as been damaged by a porno ring operating as a Satanic cult. (One is reminded of good old Samuel Johnson's wonderful insult, "Your mother, Sir, under the guise of a keeping a bawdy house, receives stolen goods.") The boy has become a multiple personality, and one of the personalities is a killer. Burke sets out to find his makers. Moving through territory as morally seductive as that of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, we end up finally more bloodthirsty than Burke himself.
Down in the Zero
Like Blossom, this one takes us out of New York City into new territory geographically, if the same old territory morally. As a favor to a woman who helped him out in Biafra, Burke takes on an aimless teenager whose friends are committing suicide. The milieu is wealthy suburban society, kids not quite as wasted as the self-absorbed moppets in whine-soaked novels like Less Than Zero.
There is always a real villain in a Burke novel, and here the plot turns around a fashionable shrink farm for rich kids and an elaborate S/M video ring. As often happens, some of the bad guys and good guys turn out not to be. The 'traveling' novels don't have the powerful sense of place (place being New York as Hell) you will find in the early books.
Footsteps of the Hawk
Vachss takes us back to New York City to continue a story he hinted at earlier. The female cop jogging through a previous novel, Belinda, is back and she wants Burke to clear a man falsely imprisoned as a serial killer. She has evidence that points to Morales, a cop Burke has no real affection for, and our suspicions switch back and forth faster than a cat's tail as the story unfolds.
This one lost some of the faithful readers because the final plot twists seem to align Vachss with the "no such thing as a false allegation [of sexual child abuse]" crowd. I didn't see it that way, and I'm not persuaded by those who do. Burke is hired by a lawyer who specializes in exposing false accusations, to prove that a woman is not making a false allegation of sexual abuse. The lawyer's reasoning is abstruse but persuasive. Burke succeeds in proving the woman is not lying. Then she confesses that she was. And then it really gets complicated.
Readers also complained about the time Vachss spent reporting on the work of an organization in Texas called CIVITAS, a program at the Baylor School of Medicine that specializes in the psychology of child abuse. The aside does bring the action to a halt, but so what? Anybody who thinks Vachss is writing an series of "hard-boiled detective" fantasies for a more with-it generation of readers than the macho intellectuals who lionize Mickey Spillane, James Ellroy, and Norman Mailer didn't read the signs on the door ("Get mad!" "Don't Buy Thai!"). If you don't want to know about the real world Vachss is softening (his repeated claim) in the fiction, you've come to the wrong writer.
Vachss gets the combination of factual reporting and fiction right here, and the result is vintage Burke. A Neo-Nazi stalking his wife is the key to Burke's education in the network of safe houses and protective agencies for women. A new eccentric is added to the mix, a Inuit/Irish survivor named Crystal Beth who nearly gets Burke out of his Flood/Belle funk. Pansy is getting long in the tooth, but Max, Michelle, Mole, and the gang remain the most believable and astonishing 'A' team on the planet.
Vachss is taking some licks lately because his readers are becoming "more sophisticated." Whatever. I don't read Vachss for the same reason I read John Fowles, John Barth, and Margaret Atwood, and I don't expect Pulitzer fiction from him. I expect a story that moves quickly and cleanly to a solid, fairly apocalyptic resolution. I expect Burke's socio-political obsessions, and I don't mind Vachss' fairly naked commercials for his own causes (the Thai boycott, reviving Judy Henske's reputation, CIVITAS). It would be interesting to ask the 'purists' bothered by this stuff if they object to advertising on T-shirts or to sports team uniforms so covered with 'endorsements' that you can't make out the team colors. "Sophisticated," for those too sophisticated to check the dictionary, comes from a Greek word meaning "capable of arguing any side of a question for one's own gain."
So all right, be warned: Vachss interrupts for commercials sometimes. Burke has a rather tedious monomania about pedophiles. All good-looking women have big butts. Get over it. Read the rest of the book, and you will find that the dialogue is not getting regurgitated from the last novel. Vachss repeats some facts, because he is always looking to the new reader, not the members of the club. Burke is growing, and he is growing toward a realization that I expect in each new book. Yet I am never disappointed by its lack; I wait patiently. Burke doesn't want to tell us his story. But he will. And in the meantime, he will keep killing the real boogey men who haunt our streets, and I'll enjoy watching. Don't be fooled by saccharine of intellectual relativists; some men need killing.
Suddenly Crystal Beth is dead, one of a handful of people shot in a drive-by at a gay rights rally, and a serial killer begins targeting homophobes and then pedophiles, seemingly in retaliation for the shooting. Familiar Burke territory, and filled with the usual suspects. What emerges is another brilliant, self-absorbed sociopath; the territory may be a bit too familiar for the Burke aficionado and a bit too cerebral for the new reader.
Some of the Burke elements are wearing thin: The kinky consensual sex, the "We are family" meetings with Lila et al., the civil authorities who don't understand. Here, we should be looking at Burke's interest in Wolfe, but what engages the reader is the strange, unexplainable relationship he is developing with Strega. The two women are the bookends of Burke's moral universe, both of them one-way streets for a man whose vasectomy is symbolic of the dead end of his own life. Burke's universe, for all its darkness, is too simple to take those threads where they might lead, so Wolfe and Strega remain on the borders of the action.
Choice of Evil complicates the Burke universe rather ambiguously, with a villain that Burke finds attractive and we don't. Vachss is trying, I think, to reply to those critics who trivialize his books for the black and white coloring. Here is a villain whose morality is superficially ambiguous. But only superficially, and Burke should know better. Let the critics cavil that Vachss' single-mindedness about child abusers is 'tiresome.' Morality was never the critic's long suit; academe even has a pejorative name for moral criticism. (They call it "Moral Criticism." You have to get the sneering, patronizing tone just right.)
Dead and Gone
In the first ten pages of Dead and Gone, Burke is nearly killed and Pansy, his dog companion of eighteen years, is dead protecting him. I concluded my full review of Choice of Evil by observing that Vachss is essentially a sentimentalist under the street grime and hard looks, and that I didn't think he could do what it would take to really kick this series out its rut, namely kill someone who's "permanent," a continuing character whom we have some commitment to. I listed a half dozen candidates. Ironically, my list did not include Pansy, the Neopolitan Mastiff that has been part of the team from the beginning.
Ironically, because like Burke, I take my animal relationship as seriously as any human relationship, and it was inconceiveable to me that Pansy would die in violence. In Burke's world, loyalty, courage, and competence are keys, and Pansy's deceptive hippopotamus body was molded of all three, the result a kind of love that few humans can offer. Burke is devastated by her death. Consoling himself that at least she died as she would have wanted to, "in battle," he hunts for her killers with his most relentless monomania.
You can get the plot elsewhere: Burke was set up to be assassinated; if Pansy had not been with him, he would have died. The question of who set him up is the mystery, and finding the answer takes him to the West Coast, to Portland, Oregon. The answer, if a bit contrived, is consistent with the series. An old adversary, his enemy for reasons he didn't know, is behind the attempt. And Burke's revenge is wonderfully devious and indirect.
Dead and Gone introduces some new characters who look like keepers: His girlfriend Gem, his idiot savant prison buddy Lune, the Indian marksman Levi. The relationship with Gem is marred with yet another of Vachss' trademark sexual weirdnesses, but she is a strong, positive character and may, perhaps, last a bit longer than Crystal Beth and her other predecessors. For some reason, the women Burke gets close to always seem to have some strange sexual aberrance not so much repellant as unbelievable, and Gem's is an obsession with sucking Burke's thumb. Whatever.
It will be hard, I expect, for many readers to identify with the driving emotion of this novel. Make no mistake, vengence for Pansy is the steel wire woven through the whole fabric of the novel. A great deal of fuss has been made about Burke's character transformation as a result of his near-death experience. I don't see it. A different ear, a different eye, some damaged reflexes, but the same tough sentimentalist, with the ferocity that Wolfe dislikes and the sentimentality that Wesley mocks. The same relentless, uncompromising righteousness. The new bottle is damaged; the wine is no smoother.
Incidentally, a cause for celebration! A Judy Henske CD, at last. Burke's beloved blues singer, not available to mortals and non-bootleggers for so long, has a new CD, Loose in the World. Like Etta James on a quiet night in a little backstreet bar. Great stuff.
Pain Management, published in September, 2001, finds Burke still in Oregon, vanished while his New York friends investigate the assassination attempt against him (Dead and Gone). Searching for a runaway teen at the behest of his new love, Gem, he explores the world of comic books (which Vachss is familiar with through his own relationship with Dark Horse Comics) and fantasy fiction. He gets tangled with an underground organization that smuggles non-approved drugs into the U.S. to help people with serious illnesses. The novel begins to build a setting as rich and complex as the New York whose seamiest elements Vachss has captured so effectively.
Yet it is a dissatisfying book. The central action of the novel resolves, as it did in Dead and Gone, with a solution at once unbelieveable and uninteresting. Near the end, a hijacking occurs with all the excitment of having friends help you clean out the garage. And the book concludes with Burke ready to return to New York, a relationship and a subplot completely unresolved. Vachss goes his own way. Too bad, sometimes.
Only Child brings Burke back to New York and draws him into a new world of sordid violence. A Mafia don's daughter has been murdered, and Burke is hired to investigate. The investigation begins with the premise that the killing was a "message hit" from inside the criminal community. Burke discovers otherwise.
This is Vachss in his old form, working the streets and the night people who trade in sex, drugs, and perversion. The murder, it turns out, was filmed, and the motive was aesthetic, a stretch into Hell for the ultimate cinema verité. Seldom have I been more pleased to see a killer get the justice our courts could never offer.
Although Down Here starts with a nice rumble and rolls forward pretty compellingly for a hundred pages or so, and even though it's not a bad book, it is less than satisfying in a number of ways, not least of which is the almost hokey ending with its Demon ex Machina. The real bad guys are... they're.... Yeah, as Burke would say, right.
There are lazy elements in the book. Vachss repeats two pages of Sacrifice, pretty much verbatim, to explain Silver, the prison contact whose connected to the Aryan Brotherhood. And he twists what looked like a new idea into a repetition of the "hook" at the end of Sacrifice: A woman is, oh no!, not who she seems to be. Read the next novel to learn more. It's a cheap thrill from the man who invented Flood and Strega. And Belinda is not exactly in their league.
I read this book when it came out, and was not moved by it to write a review. Burke's moral politics are indeed getting a bit muddy, for all their sentimental bullshit. Watching a talk show discussion of the government's use of torture, he sneers at both the apologist and the "liberal" opposed on principle. Then the whore moderating asks the audience to vote, and Burke is pleased that the vote is 88/12% pro-torture. Vachss seems to think that a collective approval of torture is somehow connected to the desperate realities of Burke's world. That kind of thinking is what gave us neocon politics.
What came across as unique in early books is beginning to feel like a tired pose. Burke takes "precautions" in his public appearances that remind one of pre-adolescent boys' notion of a Schwarznegger paranoid fantasy. He doesn't have "an alarm" to catch intruders, for example, he has a big flashing red light mounted in each room. You can't be too careful, keep 'dos elephants out of the yard.
Maybe "tired" is the best word for the book. The sentimental schlock is getting old. All the "real family" stuff, and the "I really mean it" secret handshakes, and the inexpressible loyalty the main characters have to each other, is beginning to feel a bit like a Disney remake of The A Team for adult audiences. Talk about identity confusion. Here, the relationship with Laura is totally predictable, one patented Vachss cliché after another, except that Vachss turns it upside down at the end. Which would be Ok, if the turning upside down made any sense. Having read the book a second time, I didn't find "the truth about Laura" any more believeable than I did the first time. And that is bad, very bad.
A pass on this one.
The plot of Mask Market is strangely thin and complicated at the same time. We are to believe that Burke is pursuing a case he can't get paid for because he thinks he's in danger. And yet there is no evidence that is so, just the shared paranoia of Burke and his family. Still, the case this sets him to pursue is fascinating, and when the tangle starts to unravel, the result is very satisfying.
Burke's family is presented without the A-Team posturing that has marred recent novels in the series, and the issues central to the story are presented in a black and white that is compelling rather than strident.
I don't suppose there will ever be a Burke movie, Vachss is too uncompromising for that. It would be an interesting exercise in expectations, if he were to collaborate in a filming of Only Child, but I don't think Burke will ever be on film. Mask Market would be a good candidate, if that changes, though I'd rather see Flood, Strega, or Sacrifice – each of which is a noir masterwork.
Note: A bizarre coincidence: Robert Parker's recent Spenser novel, Million-Dollar Baby uses a unique plot element of Mask Market, the relationship of the young woman to the PI, in some very similar ways. Very unsettling, to have books by two so utterly different writers tangled in my recollection!
The Burke novels are Vachss at his best. Elements of those stories appear in his other fiction, and the themes are essentially the same, but what is often lacking is the fully developed characters that people the Burke world and, for all its heavyhandedness, the powerful sense that a real, identifiable evil is at the core of the story. Burke has not faced a truth about himself that we are inching closer and closer to from one novel to the next. His vulnerability, the history of damage for which his life is a way of coping, are key to the appeal of the books. Vachss' other fiction lacks this appeal.
The Getaway Man
Vachss is branching out into other areas lately, as The Getaway Man indicates. His 2005 novel is another retro noir piece set in the 1950s, Two Trains Running. I haven't enjoyed any of the non-Burke novels, and I passed on The Getaway Man, which reviews called "comic book-like," a characterization that gave me a quesy feeling. I would apply that description, not flatteringly, to the weak Batman book of a few years ago. I bought Two Trains Running, and it was a disappointment. I don't have much hope for Vachss fiction that lacks Burke's compelling persona.
Batman: The Ultimate Evil
Vachss is a man with a mission, and some of his publications are best explained by understanding that. His Batman novel is a twist on the comic book 'hero' worthy of Frank Miller's Dark Knight. Vachss' explanation for Batman's pathology, as you might guess, is childhood trauma, and the didactic subtext here is the campaign against child prostitution, specifically in Thailand. A book that might bring some Batman fans to the Burke novels, that might get some Batman fans involved in the prevention sex crimes against children, that might cut the tourism to Thailand by, say 1%. That's why.
Another Chance to Get It Right:
A Children's Book for Adults [Paperback]
The short story is not Vachss' strong suit. This might seem odd, since he does such a good job with the vignettes and subplots in his novels. The problem is that the 'moral' gets punched home too nakedly when the story stands alone. Reading his short stories, it is easier to understand why some readers don't like his work. That said, the stories have a Damon Runyon/O. Henry quality: When they work, they work very well indeed. But most of the time, they don't.
Another Chance to Get It Right, Vachss' "children's book for adults" is a strange item in his bibliography. A collection of stories about children, but hardly "for" children, it looks like a children's book but is clearly, as the subtitle points out, for adult readers.
Vachss' stories sometimes work better in the raw black and white of the comic book format, so you may find the graphic comic books approach in Hard Looks more appealing than the text form of the other two collections. The best thing in Hard Looks is a girl auditioning for a phone sex job. Text and image pack a wallop that sneaks up on you but is not, by no means, a cheap shot.
If you like audio books, watch for the four-cassette collection of Burt Reynolds reading 27 of the stories from Born Bad and Everybody Pays. Called Prove It, the collection is available at Amazon.com.
Vachss has been experimenting with nontraditional publishing from the beginning of his writing career. In addition to collections of illustrated short stories like Hard Looks, he also has a Batman comic, a Predator comic, and comics of his own original work (Underground and the Cross series) in print. For Safe House he assembled a CD of the Blues artists mentioned in the book, including his beloved Judy Henske. In Dead and Gone he spends a moment describing a performance by Son Seals, bluesman whose new CD, Lettin' Go, includes lyrics written by Vachss.
The other non-Burke novel, Shella is worth a read, but it is quite possibly the darkest novel ever written outside of France by a non-existentialist. I suspected for a long time that this was the rejected first novel Vachss occasionally talks about in interviews. That is not the case. That book, A Bomb Built in Hell, is the story of Wesley, much of it recycled in Hard Candy. It's available in electronic format at Vachss' web site, but still not in print.
Vachss has referred to Shella as his favorite of his books, and he complimented an interviewer for recognizing it as a love story. The central character has the worst of Burke's (and Wesley's) sociopathy, but with none of the articulateness or intellectual complexity of either of those characters. This novel operates in a moral universe as bleak as those of Genet or Celine, and the alienation of Vachss' 'Ghost' makes Camus' Meursault look like Albert Schweitzer. The folks at Kirkus Reviews (Who are those guys?) found it almost a 'parody' of the Burke books. I sigh, and wish them a room in Hell filled with James Ellroy novels, Quentin Tarantino videos, Steve Austin posters, and Nine-Inch Nail CDs, but no coke.
Once the Burke novels make the ground familiar, it is easy to see the appeal of the novel, with its relentless depiction of a truly dead soul and the extraordinary irony of the touching climax.
Where to go from here: When you are done with Vachss' books, try Carol O'Connell's 'Mallory' novels, a set of five mysteries that slowly unfold the story of a sociopathic street kid who became a crack New York cop. The first three pull us deeper and deeper into the mystery of Kate Mallory's psyche and then, in Stone Angel, O'Connell out-Cajuns James Lee Burke himself with a novel at once surreal, magical, and persuasive, perfectly satisfying as the real key to Mallory's past and almost unbelievable for its horrors. Mallory escaped from the same moral universe Vachss' Burke prowls; seeing that demense through O'Connell's eyes is a startling twist on what we consider a macho world.
Vachss' publisher: I discovered Vachss' work in paperback, looking for some light reading [!], and stuck with the paperbacks until False Allegations came out. I then began buying hardcovers, partially to increase Vachss' royalties and partially from eagerness to follow the evolving sotry of Burke and his family. It was not until Choice of Evil that I noticed that his hardcover publisher was Alfred Knopf (a division of Random House now). It was news I greeted with some dismay. Knopf is the contemptible press that picked up American Psycho when the outcry over its unrelieved and self-indulgent savagery against women cost hte author his original publisher.
Knopf, smelling a scandal with the opportunity to rake in big bucks, issued a self-righteous press release about "freedom of speech" and published the book. Having read pieces of the book in question, I wrote to the editor who issued the press release condemning Knopf for their association with the book. And got more platitudes about freedom of speech. In a word, bull. "Freedom of speech" meaning Knopf has the right to choose to publish the book, as the author did the right to find a publisher. It does not exonerate Knopf of the moral implications of publishing it. I have avoiding purchasing Knopf books ever since. It's a Quizotic gesture, since Knopf is part of the huge, international publishing ameoba, Random House. But we sae the world "one starfish at a time."
Between Random House and Knopf, it is impossible to support Vachss without buying from the Knopf trough. Too bad.