Photo credit: Mike Anderson / RedDoorStudio.com
By Robert J. Peterson
Through the novels of Andrew Vachss, I’ve learned a new meanings for brother, sister, mother, father, andmost important — family.
For the uninitiated, Vachss — pronounced “vax” — qualifies as a living, breathing superhero. In his personal life, he’s a lawyer who only represents abused children. His background includes time spent as a social worker and investigator into sexually transmitted diseases, as well as a stint running a maximum security prison for juvenile offenders. He’s dedicated his entire professional career to child protection, community organizing, and helping others. My only personal criticism of him is that he doesn’t wear a cape.
In his other life, Vachss writes crime fiction that’s hard enough to hone diamond. His novels vary in quality — and I’ll get to my appraisal of his work in a moment — but one theme unifies them: family. Vachss writes about the unlikeliest of families, including gangs of criminals and mercenaries and homeless people. But despite their disparate (and seemingly lowly) origins, they’re united and driven by a both a sense of honor and a fierce loyalty to each other.
There’s a longer conversation to be had about how I feel about the idea of family, but I’ll simply say that I believe that there are bonds deeper than blood, and that if you’re lucky, you’ll gain new friends in life who become new members of your family.
The centerpiece of Vachss’ writing is the Burke series, an 18-novel cycle that follows the dark adventures of a New York mercenary. Side note: Even though “mercenary” is the only word that comes to mind to describe Burke, it’s not accurate. He’s not a hit man, although he does kill people, and he’s not quite a mercenary, because he rarely accepts jobs that don’t move him on some emotional level. There are also scores of jobs he’d never accept for moral reasons.
If you’re looking for a way to get into the Burke series, I’d recommend you start with Strega, Vachss’ second novel and the second Burke book. (The first, Flood, is certainly worth a read, but Vachss’ hadn’t quite found the spare, percussive voice he’d come to master in Strega and its succeeding volumes.) The hook for Strega is as simple as it is stomach-turning: a woman hires Burke to find a horrible photograph of a child. Over the course of the lean narrative, Burke explores New York’s terrifying underworld, accompanied by his family.
Please note: I could very well have said that Burke was accompanied by his crew, his gang, his comrades or his team. But that wouldn’t have been true to the spirit of Vachss’ work. The Burke novels are as much about Burke’s family as they are Burke himself, and I further recommend Strega as a starting point because you learn the source of their incredible loyalty for each other.
In the event that I’m scaring you away from Vachss’ novels by describing them in such grim terms, let me assure you that despite the subject matter, his books are a joy precisely because of their grand sense of family. Burke and the gang radiate a palpable sense of warmth because of their love for each other. In addition, they’re all kind of a hoot. Get a load of Burke’s family:
Mama. A stern Chinese matriarch who runs a restaurant that serves as a front for illicit activity and as a power-point for Burke and company. She always force-feeds Burke three at least three bowls of hot-and-sour soup when he visits.
The Prof. Short for “professor” and “prophet,” the Prof is simultaneously Burke’s mentor and most trusted gunman.
The Mole. Burke’s tech expert, the Mole lives underneath a garbage dump and spends his life hunting Nazis. (Wacky anecdote: I once went to see Vachss speak, and I asked him where he came up with the Mole. His (paraphrased) answer was that as a writer, he’s not known for his imagination. As an example, he said that during his first year out of law school, he spent a lot of time hanging out at a Chinese restaurant where the stern owner force-fed him hot-and-sour soup. Which means — holy Crom. The Mole is real!)
Max the Silent. A peerless martial-arts master, and a role to be played by Jackie Chan in a movie now that he’s old enough. (Heck, Chan did a dry-run for the role in the remake of The Karate Kid.)
There are many others, but I don’t want to deprive you the pleasure of meeting them on your own. Other great Burke novels include Blue Belle, Hard Candy and Blossom (a trio that works as a mini-trilogy), as well as Sacrifice, Down in the Zero (oddly, the first one I read), Footsteps of the Hawk (a rich detective yarn that feels the most Chandleresque), Choice of Evil and Dead and Gone.
Vachss fans may notice that I left some out, including False Allegations, Pain Management and many of the final Burke books. That was on purpose. Vachss wrote about one Burke novel a year, and although I enjoyed ‘em all, I didn’t find them all equally satisfying. The last few in particular slipped in quality, although the end of the series’ final volume, Another Life, is stunning.
That said, Vachss immediately found new life as a storyteller in the first follow-up to the Burke novels, Haiku, which features a prototypical Vachssian hero — a homeless (and disgraced) sensei. The hook for this one is so delightfully simple, I won’t spoil it. All I’ll offer is that it’s incredibly moving. His most recent novel, The Weight, is also solid, and its hook is a classic Vachss Trojan-horse. (Meaning, he sets up his plot with a detestable iniquity from the criminal justice system: a rape can draw less jail time than burglary.)
Going back into the databanks, the first Vachss novel I read was the standalone thriller Shella, which follows a hero so taciturn and unassuming that he’s known only as Ghost. Here are the first few lines of Vachss’ prose I ever read:
The first time I killed someone, I was scared. Not scared to be doing it — I did it because I was scared.
Shella told me it was like that for her the first time she has sex.
I was fifteen that first time. Shella was nine.
Vachss fills his novels with passages like that; moments of such bone-deep sadness that you forget the sun will ever rise again. But he mitigates those moments with his powerful sense of family, as well as an appreciation for revenge that would befit the bloodiest Elizabethan tragedy.
He has a lot of other writing, as well, including The Getaway Man, a laid-back crime romp that indulges his love of cars; Two Trains Running, a nod (as I understand) to Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op that I haven’t read; the novel A Bomb Built In Hell (haven’t read it); and a Batman novel called The Ultimate Evil (haven’t read it). He also has two fantastic short story collections called Everybody Pays and Born Bad, which include some of his forays into science-fiction.
If you hadn’t figured it out by now, I love Vachss’ work. But how does it influence me?
Put simply: Vachss’ writing rewrote my creative DNA, revised the way I look at families, and rebooted the way I feel empathy for others.
In my novels, all of my heroes have one thing in common: their greatest weapon is a good heart. In addition, they have many loyal friends. Sometimes these characters have to earn the trust and love of these friends. The protagonist of my second novel, The Island Circus, spends the entire story earning it. He has to. After all, they’re family.
You can draw a straight line between my exploration of these new definitions of family and Vachss’ writing. The man can write, but even more than that, he exalts the experience of feeling empathy as the highest of callings. If you’re asking me, I think the need for more empathy stands among the greatest moral emergencies of our time. Vachss understands that, and I hope to expand that understanding in my own work.
Stay strong, everyone.
For more information about Vachss and his work, visit his official website: Vachss.com.