Andrew Vachss, “Flood” (1985) (narrated by Christopher Lane) – This crime novel, published in the year of my birth, catalogs many of the going fears of the time, most of which bled into my early childhood. The first of what seems to be a long series of novels starring Burke, an ex-con private eye who specializes in shaking down the “freaks” of his native New York City and protecting children, “Flood” capitalizes on the panic over organized child sexual abuse then raging unchecked. Vachss himself, according to wikipedia and his introduction to the novel, at any rate, considers himself first and foremost a protector of children. He apparently has a law practice that only takes on juvenile clients, and once ran a juvenile prison (honestly, seems to contradict the whole “child protector” thing right there, but what do I know?). Eye-patched and given to eccentric statements, like how his “personal religion is revenge,” he cuts a vaguely Moshe Dayan-ish figure.
I listened to this book in part out of general interest in crime fiction, and in part out of an interest in fictional depictions of this era of moral panic. My birthday lecture this year is in part on Dennis Lehane, another crime writer who draws from the well of corrupted childhood innocence. Cards on the table: “childhood innocence” talk from adults, especially adult men, creeps me out. I am indeed aware there are those who prey on children- growing up when and where I did, this is unavoidable. I’m also aware that these are crimes of power imbalance, and posturing as a protector of the weak is a good way to ensure that the power imbalance stays where it is, regardless of good intentions on the part of the “protector”. I also know that in the vast majority of instances, the power imbalances that generate child abuse come from socially-enshrined institutions, the kind you’re not supposed to question, like that of the Catholic Church or, most pertinent of all, the heteronormative patriarchical family. The local fascists like to posture about how opposed they are to pedophilia, as though such a stance makes them brave. They still support Trump and never touch the Church. I’ll believe a social worker or a survivor when they talk about this shit, not a rando vigilante wannabe.
Vachss (and Lehane, for anyone keeping score) acknowledge this power dynamic, partially. Child abuse exists in the sanctified spaces in the world of Vachss because, well, it exists everywhere, kind of rendering the point moot. Still and all, the “freak” Burke hunts in this book finds his victims via, where else, day-care centers, in this instance day-care centers run by liberal churches who buy a freak’s fake traumatized Vietnam vet schtick. He’s hired by the titular Flood, a hot young lady who wants to do a karate duel with the bad guy (who calls himself “The Cobra”). It’s that kind of a book.
Much of the book is a tour through the slime-pits of Burke’s New York. Vachss enumerates in loving detail Burke’s scams, security arrangements, and network of allies. We don’t know what Burke went to jail for but we do know he sees himself as being above both the square society of “citizens” and the “freaks” of the city- he sees himself as a meta-predator, preying on those who prey on others. Though to be honest, when he’s drumming up business for shyster lawyers or running his other penny-ante scams, he seems more like a scavenger than anything else, and Vachss’s descriptions of his security systems get tiresome too. For those playing the game of trying to dope out an ideology here, Vachss is complicated, though I wouldn’t say “complex” in the sense of “nuanced.” He’s disgusted by the society of freaks, but right-wingers are freaks just as much as anyone else in his book. Scamming the mercenary pipeline to Rhodesia winds up being a key part of how Burke finds his man, and Burke is pals with Puerto Rican militants and a trans woman who’s relatively sensitively portrayed, given the era and the context.. Moreover, there’s little appeal to lost innocence on a societal level- Burke and Vachss don’t look back to the fifties or whenever. Ultimately, in a fallen world, there is no society, only men and women and their — in this instance, chosen, like Burke’s posse — families, to borrow a phrase from a contemporary figure. Crime fiction doesn’t generally set out to solve the structural woes of the world, but the way they choose to portray these structures can tell you something.
How to rate this book? It was certainly an interesting glimpse into a time and place. Vachss’s work might form a building block going forward in thinking about the era, and I do plan on reading and writing more concertedly about the late twentieth century. I also found it markedly unpleasant to listen to. Vachss himself would presumably put this down to my incapacity to deal with the reality of the streets, but if I may speak for myself in this hypothetical conversation, I don’t think that’s it. For one thing, I’m not sure how real any of this is, between the karate duels and the friend of Burke’s who invented a laser as a kid and the open-air child slave and pornography markets. For another, it just ticked a lot of boxes of unpleasantness for me and I think for many readers orthogonal to the premise of child abuse existing, starting with the creepy protector-of-the-youth bullshit you need to accept as the price of entry, and including the choice of the voice actor to do ludicrous dehumanizing Asian and black dialect voices (his Hispanic voices were relatively restrained- thank god for small favors I suppose). In the last analysis I rate these books based on whether I liked them, like goodreads says (this all started with goodreads, for better or for worse), and in the end I would not say I “liked” this weird, scuzzy book. **