Last week I read Andrew Vachss' latest novel, "Terminal," this is by my count his 20th novel, and the 17th in the Burke series.
I'm not really up to writing a full review but here's just a few thoughts on the book.
Andrew Vachss is a very skilled writer who has a talent for gritty crime fiction. He has an ability to describe darkness and crime in a manner that few do. The reader is left with the feeling that he has spent time with a man who has been there, done that, and traveled mentally and physically in places where they themselves probably have dared not.
His novels have a dark, transgressional quality to them, as the author seeks to push the reader outside of their comfort zone and leave them outraged and intent on working to correct Vachss' causes, most of which center around child abuse or mistreatment in various forms. The books are designed to push people's buttons and provoke a response.
Therefore the first few books in the Burke series hit the world like a hammer. Few people had ever read anything like them in their power, darkness, emotional intensity, lightened by interesting characters who traveled in a surreal vision of inner-city New York and its environs. (For most of us in this society, the deepest parts of the inner-cities are places we dare not travel and therefore they take on a mythic nature at times. Vachss and, at times, Frank Miller, the comic author, both toy with this in a very skilled manner.)
The first half dozen or so in the series had a major impact on me and many other readers.
However, in my opinion, about that time the series lost steam. Although one could see that the characters in the first few books had been designed in such a way that they intertwined, establishing depth and verisimilitude while leaving threads hanging to be tied up in future novels, eventually there were no more integral plot threads waiting to be resolved and instead the author seemed to pull plots out of the air and tack things on willy-nilly and returning to things and characters that should best have been left alone, weakening them in the process.
"Shella," a non-Burke novel, came along. To borrow terms from another genre, this was set in the same "universe" as the Burke novels, written with the same intent, feel and style, but involved all new characters. But the readers demanded more of Burke and the author returned to writing that series. Vachss' day job and passion is working as a lawyer who defends children. He has stated that since his clients do not have much money, it is important that his novels bring in money to help the law firm. (He also stated this was not a realistic business plan for others to follow. It simply worked out for him that way.) Therefore to some extent he is trapped in writing the Burke novels, although he has experimented with writing other novels including "The Getaway Driver." I enjoyed "The Getaway Driver." This had a different feel than his previous novels, being less surreal in my opinion.
"Terminal," in my opinion, seemed to have been written in the following manner. With short choppy segments, strung together to form a novel, one gets the feeling that Vachss probably writes a segment daily. However, many of these segments can only be described as rants, with Vachss interrupting his narrative in an undisciplined fashion to voice his opinion on things that upset him.
Some of these are quite understandable, such as extreme forms of child abuse, loss of privacy making life easier for stalkers and the internet fueling extreme forms of cruelty, are understandable. Such opinions are in keeping with his mission as a writer, although they do tire the reader at times. Many, such as the gentrification and changes in New York City, are in keeping with the characters and their world, although they too go on a bit too long. Yet others, such as the stupidity of "wasting your vote" by voting for the Greens, just seem a bit ranty and, for lack of a better term, childish.
Finally, the odd thing about Vachss' book is that he often rails against people who work on his causes but not in the way he wishes (i.e. he criticizes the sex offender registries and amber alerts) or on related causes instead of the ones he wants them to (people who work to publicize human trafficking of adults instead of child abuse). Now. for the record, although we've never met, I believe Vachss' heart is in the right place and his commitment to his causes unmistakeable. And having spent time working on and around child abuse issues from various sides, including at times the side of false accusations, these things do eat at a person. There is a concept floating around called "secondary traumatization," which refers to the way in which a person becomes traumatized by frequent exposure to working with people who have been traumatized or even frequent exposure to reports of trauma. Therefore it is understandable that Vachss will occasionally lash out.
However, let me go on record here. I do not agree that everything Vachss believes in or every sort of abuse he includes in his novels is true. I do not, for instance, believe in Satanic Ritual Abuse (neither does the FBI, by the way). I do not believe in repressed and later recovered memories (nor do competent psychologists these day) and I believe that when Multiple Personality Disorder does exist it exist due to the coaching of incompetent therapists. Therefore I see it as socially irresponsible the way in which Vachss encourages people to believe in things for which the evidence simply is not there and then to encourage people to act on these beliefs.
Of course, he is not alone in this, but by encouraging such behavior he is going to unleash pointless child abuse programs and waste resources that could be better spent on programs that work more directly to effectively prevent child abuse either directly or indirectly (Since there is a direct correlation between child abuse and neglect and poverty, programs to reduce poverty would reduce child abuse and neglect. This, however, is not mentioned in Vachss' books, where the issues are more simple and the primary cause of child abuse seems to be human evil.)
My thoughts, "Terminal" is far from Vachss' best work. I found the plot confusing and disjointed. The authors rants were irritating and distracting. Vachss, however, is a skilled writer. I admire his early work.
I should probably get out my copy of "Two Trains Running" (a non-Burke novel that unlike many of Vachss' books is written in third person, includes shifting points of view and actual chapters) and give it another try.
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