Review – Vachss, “Strega”

Andrew Vachss, “Strega” (1987) (read aloud by Phil Gigante) – Andrew Vachss died last November. He was a weird, interesting guy. In some ways he had a personal story more interesting than the stories in the two novels of his I’ve so far read. He worked as a community organizer with Saul Alinsky, then went out to Biafra to try to deliver relief to the rebels that the Nigerian government was then starving out. Some point after that, he made child protection his great cause- he ran a facility for juvenile offenders (no abolitionist, he), eventually becoming a lawyer who only took on cases for children, and wrote numerous novels, including the best-selling Burke series. He swanned around with an eyepatch like Moshe Dayan, and was given to proclamations like “I only have one god: revenge.” He was obsessed with karate and menacing dogs. As my friend and podcast cohost pointed out, there’s more than a little of what would go into QAnon here… but as listening to this book helped bring home for me, it’s a flipped QAnon, not quite a left-wing QAnon (as I know some very online leftists seem to pine for, a way to “get the shit-munchers on side), but a worldview based on the centrality of evil, represented by the sexual exploitation of children, with many of the valuations of QAnon reversed.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. This is the second installment in Vachss’ flagship series depicting the deeds of unlicensed private eye/child avenger Burke. Burke and his chosen family of renegades work the streets of pre-Giuliani period New York, doing scams and stick-ups targeted at other low-lives and “freaks.” While Burke has contempt for the milieu in which he works, he has even more for the square world, which threw him into the maw of the system as a baby and made him, and most other “freaks,” what they are- all while piously denying the impulses that drive squares to take part in the freak world’s illicit pleasures. . Burke’s crew includes a homeless guy, a deaf-mute Mongolian martial arts master, a reclusive Zionist genius junk-tinkerer, and what is, for the time and the genre, a really sensitively-portrayed trans woman. Burke doesn’t mess up the she/her pronouns of his friend Michelle, who specializes in surveillance, sleight of hand, and taking care of kids! What’s your excuse? That alone inverts a major contemporary reactionary value, hatred of anyone who challenges gender norms. If a QAnoner might be along for the ride of violently punishing “freaks,” they’ll be outright shoved out of Vachss’ moving car by his violent disregard for the sentimental version of suburban normalcy at the heart of their worldview. 

Alas, as yet, the actual stories Vachss tells are generally less interesting than the world he builds. Burke gets contacted by a Mafia don he knew in jail to help the don’s niece, a femme fatale who wants to find a dirty picture of a friend’s kid getting sexually assaulted by an adult. There’s a lot of child psychology here, and I don’t really know anything about that- would it make sense that a kid would feel better about getting molested if a grown-up tore up a picture of the child’s abuse in front of him? That’s the kind of question you have to think about, reading a Burke story. Burke doesn’t really want to take the case, despite his feelings about protecting kids. He doesn’t want to get in hock to the Mafia (he occasionally rips off their couriers with his friends for quick cash), the femme fatale gets on his nerves, and it seems like an impossible case, finding one picture (likely reproduced!) in an ocean of filth. But they get to him, so he and the team get to work. He works various underworld connections, with varying degrees of success. His best lead is with a prison gang clearly meant to be the Aryan Brotherhood, but not given that name, which allows flashbacks to the time Burke and other characters have spent on jail, and the indulgence of that peculiar queasy fascination people have with white gangs. 

It’s not terrible and it’s plotted a lot better than the first installment. But Vachss still spends way more time on the details of Burke’s lifestyle — the minor schemes he does to make money outside of “the system,” his various personal security measures, stuff he does to avoid search and seizure issues, etc. — than I found interesting. Crime stories like this, with little in the way of “whodunnit” mystery, rely on conjuring a world defined in part by the interesting techniques of people from the other side of the legal divide from the standard square reader. Think heist movies- they can be fantastic (the Oceans movies) or (pseudo)realistic, like Michael Mann’s crime dramas, but they always focus on the ways and means. But Vachss does too much of it, too unrelated to the story, and it’s usually too low stakes. Similarly, many of his characters are such ludicrous stereotypes that the emotional weight they are meant to carry falters. This is especially true of Max, the deaf-mute borderline superhuman karate master, and the femme fatale. You see the big reveal about her miles away, and while her relationship with Burke is grimy and scummy in a way that does help drive the plot (and guarantees she goes away in time for a new girl in the next installment, ala Bond), it’s also hard to wring that much of it at this late date. Still- there’s enough here to sustain some interest. ***’

Review – Vachss, “Strega”

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