June 2005

Clayton Moore

features

The Truth Hurts: Andrew Vachss Takes a Stab at History

When is a crime writer not a crime writer? In the case of Andrew Vachss, the creator of terminal hard case and series favorite Burke, it’s today. With his new novel, Two Trains Running from Pantheon Books, he’s really swinging for the bleachers with an ambitious work that transcends genre to blend an unwritten history of 1950’s America with sharp observations about how governments, crime and politics have shaped the country. It’s literature all right -- with a lot of corruption, desperation and bloodshed.

Vachss has been engaged in a war against child abuse for 40 years. After an ugly first-person look at the genocidal war in Biafra in the early 1970’s, he came back to find equally abhorrent abuses happening at home. As a social worker and director of an institution for juvenile offenders, he hit a wall of abuse towards children and came out fighting. He has not only been on the front lines defending kids against their attackers as an attorney exclusively representing matters related to children and youth, but has also been instrumental in forming Protect, a national association formed to lobby for children’s rights and pass legislation to protect them from abuse, exploitation and neglect.

He’s also found time to reach what he calls the “larger jury” of the American public. After writing a successful textbook on juvenile prisons, he wrote Flood in 1985, introducing his mercenary private eye Burke, seen most recently in last year’s Down Here. Although he has written a multitude of material outside of the Burke series ranging from articles for Parade Magazine to 2003’s car-theft caper The Getaway Man, Two Trains Running is an epic tale that even Vachss, a man used to hard work, admits took some extra effort.

“This was heavy lifting,” he says. “It wasn’t just heavy lifting but it was like heavy lifting nitroglycerine. You can’t slip or it all goes to hell. It has to be true. I really went the whole fifteen rounds on this sucker and a few times, I thought it had me.”

The story boils over in a little place called Locke City, a Midwestern company town devastated when the factories closed after World War II but resurrected by the local boss, Royal Beaumont, who has transformed it into his own personal kingdom for vice. His organization is under attack from Sal Diogaurdi, a Mafia boss imported from Brooklyn and Mickey Shalare, an IRA emissary. There’s also a black revolutionary movement led by Rufus Hightower and juvenile gangs locked in a death struggle over useless pieces of turf. Although “Lock City” is slang for a sure thing, things quickly go south in a hurry.

Into the middle of this mess comes Walker Dett, a mercenary hired by Beaumont, and Jimmy Proctor, an investigative reporter for the local paper. Before it’s all done, Vachss has interwoven his rich story with stories about how Al Capone got syphilis, the Tuskegee experiment, John Dillinger, FBI assassins and Ku Klux Klan death cars.

If there’s a theme to the book, says Vachss, it’s about undercurrents and how the real history of America is underneath the surface.

“The whole trick to this book is that these events that have brought us to where we are today are not the result of random acts, nor are they the result of cosmic design. People are pushing against the fabric of society all the time. Some people are trying to readjust it, some people are trying to tear it, some people are trying to enter it but this is all going on. This is why I can write a 400-page book that takes place in two weeks. Something is going on all the time,” Vachss said.

In fact, the book’s structure is startling complex. It is told literally in minute-by-minute increments, abandoning Vachss’s traditional first-person narration for a burst of staccato third-person glimpses at the action, told mostly through dialogue. There are no chapter breaks and each burst is time-stamped and dated, guiding the reader through two desperate weeks in Locke City.

“I’ve written entire appellate briefs that didn’t require the physical wall-space that it took just to chart this sucker,” Vachss laughed. “It had a gestation period like a baby elephant. I’ve been working on this book for years, grabbing bits and pieces of the information I wanted. I had the perspective I wanted and I even had the motivation I wanted. What I needed was a way to present it and that’s what I wrestled with for so long before I finally found it. I finally decided that I could write in the third person with that leaden exposition that it’s prone to without leading anybody’s mind or going backwards in time. The third person narrator, instead of being omniscient, is like a constantly running surveillance tape. Once I got there, I knew I could compress this thing so that it’s a very fast-running river, like rapids. You get to see the undercurrent at the same time if you’re willing to make the effort.”

Vachss even wrote each character’s story independently and then wove them together to create the complete work. “I don’t think it’s that strange,” Vachss cautions. “If you take Rufus’s story from the beginning, you can follow it as a story, but it didn’t happen 24/7, though. There were gaps. If you take Carl’s story, there are again huge gaps in time to get him where he ends up. Carl is part of Rufus’s life but Carl doesn’t see the real Rufus any more than Rufus sees the real Carl.”

Like many of his contemporaries in crime fiction, Vachss has made his way by showing crime’s effect on the population that suffers it, but Two Trains Running has the unique challenge of being a small town that also has to serve as every town.

“Locke City is a complex community. If you’re going to build a microcosm and show crime’s effect on the entire world, it has to be a pretty tiny spot. I can’t write a global book. I have to say that this is absolutely ground zero. If you look at this single place and then multiply it by all the opportunities and potential within the country, you can see how things happen. I don’t consider Locke City to be unique,” Vachss explained.

Despite being couched in fiction, there’s a lot more history here than the author suspects some readers will realize. Although many of the characters are based in Vachss’s real-life experiences, he is also dredging up some of the uglier truths of the day.

“There is no dispute about the government having assets in Klan cars and that’s what really kicks it off,” Vachss explains. “All the chickens are coming home to roost now. You can sit and open your browser and within an hour, you can find all the civil rights murders from other eras that are being opened, whether they are church bombings or assassinations. If you read closely into why they’re being opened, it’s because somebody got a look at the FBI files.”

Although he’s touched in the subject in the past, Vachss got to take a good hard look at race relations as well.

“I did think about race,” he said. “It’s potentially our greatest asset as Americans and yet it’s the cancer on the body politic. Look, the strongest dogs are mutts. If you look upon a country as a company, it would produce the best product if it got the best people on the job, period. Any company that says, ‘We don’t hire Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Irishmen,’ or whatever is automatically reducing the pool from which to choose the best people. We got to be the greatest country in the world because we don’t have this exclusionary practice of dealing with other human beings but on a practical basis, racism has been a valuable card not necessarily in the hands of racists but in the hands of manipulators.”

That government asset in Two Trains Running is Walker Dett, who Vachss explains is his “debt walking,” serving seven years in a self-imposed hell for the crimes he’s committed. Walker himself explains to Tussy that even though he’s not always certain about his path, he knows it’s his place to stop the coming disaster when he can.

“’Two trains coming, son,’ she said to me. ‘Headed for the junction. You can’t stop either one. But you can slow the dark one down. You can put a lot across the tracks, make Satan late enough so that the righteous train gets by clean.’

“What does that mean?” Tussy demanded, her voice caught between anger and dread.

“It means I kill people,” Dett said, dead-voiced. “You can say they’re bad people but that’s not why I have to do it. Those three men out in the field that night, they were bad men. And whoever sent them, to do what they meant to do, they’re worse. But the worst of all are the people who sent me there.”

“The FBI?”

“Not even them, Tussy. Not even them. And I don’t think I’ll ever know who makes things the way they are. And it doesn’t matter. My job is to roll that log across the tracks in time. It doesn’t matter who hires me, because they’re all guilty or they’re being used by those who are. It’s like being surrounded. Wherever you shoot, you hit the enemy.”

“I set out to write the story of a man on a mission of atonement, which consists of committing homicides. I do believe it’s completely plausible that one of these government assets could get overwhelmed with what he had done,” Vachss affirmed.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s made up.

“Is it speculative fiction?” Vachss asked. “Of course, but I defended the history. I think that most people who read the book will wonder where the speculation begins and many of them are going to think the speculation begins a lot earlier than it actually does. There are events in this book -- take the Tuskegee experiment for example -- that I’ve described to people in conversation and they think I’m hallucinating.”

“Look, this isn’t the X-Files,” he continued. “This is not aimed at people who think the whole world is a series of conspiracies or The Da Vinci Code or any such crap. It’s aimed at people who believe the world as we see it today is not the result of random chance and that if you’re not willing to look beneath the surface, you’re doomed. If you won’t look at the undercurrent, you can’t change course.”

In fact, the heart of Two Trains Running may not be Walker Dett, but Jimmy Proctor, the underhanded but driven investigative reporter for the Locke City Compass. Like Proctor, Vachss believes in the power of journalism to change the way things are.

“You may not like Jimmy Proctor, who is a blackmailer and an extortionist, but he is a true believer,” Vachss said. “His church is journalism and so his god has to be truth. This book is my ode to journalism. Journalism is what maintains democracy. It’s the force for progressive social change. Journalism is the protection between people and any sort of totalitarian rule. That’s why my hero, admittedly a flawed one, is a journalist.”

Although Vachss is passionate about journalism’s ability to affect many causes including his own, it doesn’t mean he’s gone completely off his target.

“I haven’t abandoned my issues,” Vachss said. “Anyone who doesn’t get from this book the thematic thread of how child abuse reverberates through generations has to be brain dead. I also have a lot to say about so-called mentally challenged people and about what cruelty to animals says about those who practice it. That said at the bottom of everything, unless the truth is told, people, no matter how well motivated, have no motivation to act from. You’re just firing blind. If this book motivates people to go back and examine the historical events that they have taken for granted, I will be well rewarded.”

Although Vachss will go back to Burke with a new book about human trafficking next year, tentatively titled Mask Market, he is touring behind Two Trains Running for the first time since The Getaway Man and looks forward to engaging both old fans and new readers. Writing the book was obviously a heavy weight to carry.

“I really tried to put in the effort because I’m trying to hit a much smaller target with a much bigger cannonball,” Vachss said. “The target is to actually produce a work of literature that will engage you so that you pick it up and read it through and immediately want to go back. If there’s one thing this book really requires, it’s an investment. I never worked as hard on any writing as I did on this book.”

Andrew Vachss is touring bookstores across the county behind Two Trains Running. His schedule, along with excerpts, an audio interview with author Joe Lansdale, and an essay on the book can be found at www.twotrainsrunning.com. A huge collection of resources on Andrew Vachss’ work in both crime fiction and child protection can be found at The Zero, his official web site, at www.vachss.com.