Max grabbed the freak’s fingertips, stretching the hand out for me. I raised the butcher knife high above my head…
The man with the knife is a private eye known only as Burke. He is a fictional character, but his feelings about child molesters—freaks, as he calls them—are real. They are the feelings of his creator, Andrew Vachss.
A Manhattan attorney who represents victims of child abuse, Vachss (rhymes with “fox”) has worked 13 years in an insidious world where kids are bought and sold as objects of desire. He has also sued groups like the venerable Fresh Air Fund, which, he charged, had unwittingly sent some children to homes where they were abused. These experiences have left him with plenty to say about this shame of our society, and he says it in detective novels.
“I get incest cases, kiddie porn and torture of one kind or another. I get cases from doctors or psychiatrists,” says Vachss, 45. “Perpetrators call looking for me to defend them because I’d be good. And I would be. I just won’t. I’ve turned people down who then say, ‘Well, how much do you want?’ Someone who knows children are for sale wouldn’t be shocked to think lawyers are too, now would they?”
Vachss has taken his own anger and turned the flame up higher to create Burke, the central character in all of his books. An orphan raised by the state and an ex-con, Burke has parlayed his knowledge of criminal life into a shady private-eye business. He has a staff working for him, which includes Max, a mute who is a sweet, sensitive guy, when he’s not beating a tattoo on the ribs of some freak.
Vachss’s raw prose has hit home with critics almost as hard as one of Max’s karate chops. “The words leap off the page, the principal character is original, and the style is as clean as a haiku,” wrote David Morrell in the Washington Post. This month Vachss, as tough and blunt as his fictional voice, will have his third book, Blue Belle, published. His first, Flood, has sold more than 250,000 copies in hardcover and paperback; Strega (published in paperback last spring) has already sold twice as many, and Vachss is mulling over film offers for both Strega and Blue Belle.
When the movies are cast, Vachss might be considered for the principal role. Handsome, with a taut, angular face, the author wears a patch over his right eye as the result of an incident he says he can’t recall—though he does remember it was a chain that did the damage. When he describes some of the countless atrocities that have been inflicted upon children, some as young as 3 months old, his good eye fixes on the listener as if to burn the image of each infuriating act deep into the visitor’s brain.
Though they use different means to achieve their ends, Vachss and Burke have much in common. Burke’s pet is an attack-trained 140-lb. mastiff; Vachss happens to own a 140-lb. mastiff as well. In Strega, Burke falls for a character named Eva Wolfe, a special prosecutor for New York City’s “Citywide Special Victims Bureau.” Vachss’s wife, Alice, 37, is an assistant district attorney who runs the Special Victims Bureau in the Queens district attorney’s office, which prosecutes, among others, cases of child abuse.
Surprisingly, Vachss denies that his books are autobiographical, and he insists the graphic violence that permeates them is not meant to titillate but to evoke the gamy reality of the streets. “I’m not selling vigilantism,” he maintains. “The parts of the books that have survived from my life are the moralities, the principles and some of the situations, not the characters.”
Vachss started writing fiction four years ago to supplement his meager income as a lawyer; the children he defends, of course, have no financial resources, while their parents may be the ones charged with abuse. He also hopes to educate the public. “I want to make people think, and I want them to get angry,” he says. He spends much of his time searching the seamiest parts of New York, hoping to wrest an innocent child from the pimps and the kiddie-porn merchants. “A kid getting off a bus at Times Square is a piece of raw meat being thrown into a shark tank,” says Vachss. “Whoever gets there first gets it.” If he succeeds in intercepting a runaway, Vachss attempts to get the child into foster care or place him or her in a juvenile facility.
The son of a shipping manager who played semipro football, Vachss grew up amid the teeming tenements of Manhattan’s pregentrified Lower West Side, where he learned the rough-and-tumble rules of the street. According to his brother, Woody, young Andrew became familiar early on with the gritty side of urban life. “Andy was always off on his own,” says Woody, 43, a probation officer in New Hampshire. “He had a group of friends that I remember as being kind of weird.” Woody also recognizes a few of the characters in his older brother’s books. “Max existed. So did the Mole [an unsavory character who lives in a junkyard and hunts Nazis]. He may have borrowed a little from one guy and folded it into another, but those guys were real.”
Andrew Vachss became acquainted with all the dismal details of child abuse when, after graduating from Western Reserve University in 1965, he tracked the spread of syphilis for the U.S. Public Health Service in Ohio. “I saw kids who were horribly abused,” he recalls. “If you’re going to follow syphilis to its end, you’re going to find incest. I wasn’t shocked at people being shot or stabbed when I was growing up, but I was real shocked that people would do these things to their own kids.” From 1971 to 1975, he held a string of jobs, most of them dealing with the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.
In 1972 Vachss jumped at the chance to run ANDROS II, a maximum-security juvenile facility near Boston, and he is proud of having turned it around. “The place was below a jungle when I got there,” he says. “I learned that you can run a jail without letting the inmates run the show.” There he met Alice, then a law student, who was writing a history of the institution. “He was extremely intense, and he was also effective,” says Alice. “There were three rules in that place: no sex, no violence and no drugs. They were enforced, and that was the first time the kids ever had that.” She and Vachss married a few years later—both profess not to remember exactly when. “I think it’s our 10th anniversary this year, but we’re not very sentimental about those things,” says Alice.
Both are intensely devoted to their work and jealous of their privacy. They live in a one-bedroom brick Queens house protected by guard dogs and a number of security devices since each has been threatened many times by criminals they have opposed in court. Because of their commitment to their jobs, they say, and not because of the wretchedness they have seen in the world, the Vachsses have chosen not to have children. Andrew Vachss’s writing is not a release from that commitment, he insists, but an extension of it. “I don’t fancy myself a writer,” he says, leaning back in a creaky chair and speaking in a gravelly voice Burke would be proud of. “I’ve only got but one story to tell.”