Andrew Vachss' novels appeal to a dedicated audience. The Burke series, thirteen books that trace about fifteen years in the life of a noir PI with no license and many causes, have a following as forgiving as the most dedicated sci-fi fanzine crowd. This is not a bad thing, but it makes discussion of his books quickly turn extraliterary. The newest novel, Pain Management, is a case in point.
Much has been made in pre-release publicity and early reviews about Vachss adopting a new cause, the need to change procedures that hinder the distribution of pain killers not approved by the FDA. It turns out to be minor subplot of the novel with little new to offer except a brief, impassioned dialogue in which an anonymous Robin Hood of the cause, a woman who calls herself "Ann O. Dyne" (and has the nerve to say to Burke and, implicitly to us, "Get it?") makes her case. I'm persuaded. As with most of Vachss' causes, I agree with him. But that is hardly the core of the novel.
The title, Pain Management, resonates through all the plot threads of the novel. The most obvious resonance is the minor subplot, hijacking illegal painkillers. But Burke is managing the pain of his loss, the death of his dog Pansy. Gem, the lover from Dead and Gone, shares with him the pain of their deteriorating relationship. And the primary action of the novel, the hunt for a runaway teen, is driven by the girl's choice of this avenue for managing her emotional pain. Everybody in this book is managing some pain, as are we all.
Burke is hired by an anachronistic 'sixties leftist who has become an architect, though he still is linked up with his anti-war buddies. His older daughter, Rosa, has disappeared, kidnapped or run away. She has left behind an odd, possibly forged goodbye letter and a complex, dedicated network of friends. Burke's job is to find her. What begins as a simple search for a runaway turns puzzling when he discovers government agents are also looking for her.
The hunt takes Burke into the Portland runaway underground, with side trips to the worlds of fantasy fiction, comic books, serial murder, and black market drugs. He searches for a cult of Charles de Lint followers trying to realize the fantasy world of his Borderlands series. A second thematic thread is drawn from Vachss' connections to the world of hard core comics. (Dark Horse Comics, based in Portland, publishes comics and graphic novels by Vachss).
As he searches for Rosa (variously known as Rosebud, Rose, and Buddy), he becomes deeply suspicious of the father's motives. Did the father abuse her? If so, Burke will find her, tell her father she's Ok, and let her stay underground. Does the father have other secret motives? Well, yes, as it turns out, and as in Dead and Gone, the truth the final pages reveal is a huge letdown, neither believeable nor particularly interesting.
The most interesting (and familiar) subplot is his hunt through the world of the Portland sex trade, verifying his assumption that a girl of Rosa's character would not have slipped into prostitution. Given that we are all pretty sure of this, he spends an odd amount of time at it. The payoff is that he turns up evidence of a pair of serial killers preying on the street girls. It would be a spoiler to tell you more, but I will warn you that when the novel ends, this plot thread will have you kicking the walls in frustration.
His search for Rosa puts him in the sights of the mysterious "Ann O. Dyne," who drifts through the territory of the prostitutes and at first seems to be one herself. Or perhaps the killer. But no, she wants him to help her hijack a shipment of illegal pain killers. She is not in it for the money, either; like Burke, she is a crusader. We meet her colleagues, a crew of people who have lost loved ones to illnesses that killed them painfully while illogical laws and regulations withheld from them drugs that would have eased their suffering. Burke protests that he isn't interested, giving her a speech at one point about how crusaders should be focused, and his cause is something else. And frankly, we are not interested either. The heist is curiously featureless and uneventful, and as with so much of this novel, we just turn the page.
Burke's rage has gone soft-bellied and suffused, and the series is suffering for it. The old cynicism offers threadbare, cheap thrills to the true believer, and despite the subject matter, Burke's life has all the passion of an aging accountant's. Vachss has been coasting for some years on the good will of his dedicated readers. It will wear thin. Like the laconic, coded conversations that float to the novel's surface occasionally (one, with a pimp, I read twice, and I still don't know what they agreed to), the story leaves us outside, unwelcome observers. Not a wise place to put the reader.
What we are meant to care about in this novel is the misunderstanding between Burke and Gem that is destroying their relationship. But neither of them ever gets to the core of what is wrong. Realistic enough, but tiresome for the reader. Ultimately, we stop caring what her real relationship is with the cop Burke thinks she is screwing. Ultimately, we don't care whether they work it out or not. This is not a writing strategy that engages the reader.
There are things in the book that feel as if they are there for no good reason, such as the lengthy use of Charles de Lint's work as a plot device, or the plugs, every few pages, for Vachss' favorite blues singers (specifically songs that turn up on Vachss' own CD anthology, Safe House), or the pages of details about the mechanics of collecting comic books. At one point, a random character, little more than a shopwindow mannequin, turns up wearing "a Hard Looks tee-shirt." Cynically, I went to Vachss' website to see if I could buy an authentic Hard Looks tee-shirt with the cover of Vachss' anthology of graphic stories. Oddly enough, I couldn't.
Even the sex is repetitious. One grows weary of women who know instinctively that rear presentation is the way to Burke's heart. I'll take Strega over the whole herd of them. He screws Ann O. Dyne and then suffers a hundred pages of conscience pangs over Gem. And we just don't care. Are we not caring because Burke doesn't care, and the novel is ultra-realist? That argument earned us Andy Warhol's eight-hour epic film, Sleep, in which a camera watches a man, well, sleep.
Burke has avoiding talking about his secret for fifteen years, while we have sat patiently by, like non-commital shrinks, letting him talk. But shrinks get paid to wait, and we are paying to watch. It's time for Burke to face his truths. He's not growing; he's just getting older.
Vachss continues to be published by the pigs who salvaged American Psycho in the interests of "freedom of speech" (i.e., making a buck on scandal). It is an embarrassment that a writer of such high moral standards is in bed with a publishing house that makes marketing decisions based on scruples worthy of a Burke novel sleazeball. It gives a hollow ring to all of Burke's smart-mouth jibes at lawyers, politicians, and fat cats. If the justification is the need to make a buck for his causes, then he should go the whole way, and let the Hollywood "dream factories" turn his books into money mills. Buy Knopf? Only if you have to.