- Down Here
- Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 304 pp.
Characters of Marginal Interest
THERE ARE TIMES when a series of books comes along peopled with characters of such self-important shallowness that a reader is left wondering, after wandering through a few of the titles in the sequence, not only why he bothered making the effort in the first place, but why the given collection of books sells so many copies, why it’s so successful.
Such is the case with Andrew Vachss’ Burke novels, the latest scintillating offering titled Down Here. The popularity of this self-absorbed, naïve dreck should astound me. It doesn’t considering the current woeful state of New York publishing. One has only to read Jason Epstein’s excellent, if not discouraging, title Book Business to appreciate the hapless nature of affairs in all things involving books. Best seller lists are riddled with hacks that crank out mundane title after mundane title that, often through the nefarious efforts of their agents and publishers, find themselves celebrities who are venerated by those who can’t read and wouldn’t know a real writer if he passed out on their lap. These purveyors of swill prance and preen about the stage as though they are brilliant and actually have something to say, much like most Hollywood actors posing hideously in front of paparazzi cameras. That a large and still respected New York publishing house, in this case Knopf, would publish the stuff in the first place is not worth considering. The book biz as practiced in The Big Apple functions with a total absence of coherency, consistency or adherence to long-ago, long-dead values more commonly associated with the nearly-forgotten likes of Steinbeck, Faulkner, Chandler, and Hemingway.
And that brings us to the juvenile efforts of Andrew Vachss and his Burke novels, the latest offering titled Down Here. According to the jacket copy, Vachss “With bone-crushing impact, set in a milieu that clogs your lungs and stings your eyes, Down Here is the penetrating and remarkable thriller from the master of American Noir.” Sounds promising considering this is from the “master of American noir.” I wonder what happened to James Ellroy? Did he stop writing?
The general plot, and that’s about all there is in these books – character development, irony and subtle foreshadowing are alien concepts to this author – revolves around the fact that Burke has carried a crush on a woman named Wolfe, who is a former criminal prosecutor who was fired for refusing to “go along to get along.” Burke’s true hate in a life, a legitimate one to be sure, is directed with unrelenting vehemence at pedophiles and worse in this genre of human perversion. Wolfe feels the same way. When our hero discovers that his flame has been busted for attempted murder he suspects that all is not up to the rules of Hoyle in the legal system. He forms an alliance with his “family,” a collection of what Vachss considers highly-unique and weirdly-flawed characters that are so superficially drawn, if they ever came to life, they would not even draw the attention of a Wall Street broker. I guess the writer doesn’t get out much. He also enlists the aid of an informant inside the police department. A decidedly novel piece of artifice. From this point on the plot has all the nuance and sophistication of a Matlock episode on TV.
The family often meets at a Chinese restaurant that doesn’t serve food to anyone who enters looking for a meal. Potential customers in the dingy dining establishment are ignored until they eventually leave. Instead, Burke’s buddies sit around eating bowl after bowl of soup, a concoction that figures highly in Burke’s life but is never described (secret family recipe, I guess), discussing whatever stultifying case they’re on. The soup is made by some ancient crone known as Mama, who apparently is an oracle of sorts, if you believe Burke, though Mama has never offered a profundity in my reading experience. Rather, the reader is treated to fascinating vignettes that begin like this one where Burke and Wolfe attempt to piece together the case against dear Wolfe:
In the next hour, we held everything we knew up to the brightest light we could find – a pair of diamond-cutters, looking for the perfect place to start our work.
But all we found were flaws.
“What in the hell could a lowlife piece of garbage like Wychek do for the DA’s Office?” I asked the empty air.
Maybe they do believe him? ”Wolfe said dubiously.
“What if they did?” I put it to her.
As you can see, Vachss is a master of dialogue and narrative arc; and not to get a reader’s hopes up to high, this was one of the more dramatic scenes. The author prattles on an on about this outlaw family that has all the fresh excitement of the moribund souls who people an episode of Friends. And while I agree that child molesters should be publicly drawn-and-quartered, Vachss incessant preaching on the subject reduces his passion and righteousness to something no doubt resembling a lukewarm bowl of Mama’s soup.
I anticipated more from this series considering Vachss background and rakish photo replete with black eye patch. He’s been a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, a social service caseworker. A labor organizer and has directed a maximum-security prison for youthful offenders. Now a lawyer in private practice, he represents children and youths exclusively. In addition to the Burke books, he has written two collections of short stories, song lyrics, graphic novels and a “children’s book for adults.” His work has been translated into twenty languages. He has appeared in Parade, Antaeus, Esquire, Playboy, and the New York Times. Vachss divides his time between New York and the Pacific Northwest.
With this background one would expect books of depth, remorse, rage, ironic wit, even satire instead of the almost one-dimensional hackneyed, shoot-em-up storylines of the Burke series.
I actually did stumble across a great line in Down Here, a really good one that proves the old adage that even a blind squirrel can find a nut:
“When I was a kid,” I said feeling the dot of truth inside my story expand the margins of the lie, “I was scared all the time.”
I think Burke truly reveals his literary self with this one.