Into The Badlands Chapter 10
Part One: Joseph Koenig
Standing at the end of the Coney Island pier, staring out at the Atlantic Ocean, Joseph Koenig points out a stretch of beach over to our left across the water - the eastern tip of Rockaway Park I think - and tells me that there used to be a ferry going over there, but when you got there there were signs saying 'No Coloured, No Jews'. So that's where he and his friends always wanted to go; one tine they took the ferry over but they were thrown off straight away. That was the early '60s. Now, he adds, everyone can go there, and hardly anyone does.
These days another place hardly anyone goes is Coney Island itself. The image I have is taken from Weegee's photographs of the beach in the 40s; photos in which it is so packed that not a grain of sand can be seen. Now, on a sunny late spring Sunday, the beach still only a subway token and a half-hour ride from Manhattan, is near deserted. The once legendary funfair is now a barely functioning shell and few people are going to opt to bathe in sea as polluted as this. The people who are here are mostly Latins and Caribbeans, the new wave of New Yorkers. They're scattered along the pier fishing for crabs, an act of some desperation given the water they swim in.
Joseph Koenig, the man standing next to me on the pier, is a wiry six-footish guy with shortish black hair and a moustache, wearing Levis, a black leather jacket and a T-shirt. His biograpphy puts him somewhere in early-to-mid 40s but he, as they say, genuinely looks younger. At the moment he's living with his mother on the east side of Manhattan, and he hates everything. He hates his publishers Viking for putting such an ugly jacket on his new book and not pushing him enough; he hates crime fiction; he hates New York; he hated the subway we came here on, and he really hates Brighton Beach where I suggested we should go today. 'What do you want to go there for? I never go there.' He was driven to distraction by the slownmess of the subway train and threw himself around the carriage, led me up to the front of the train so we could see where we're going, as if it would help us to get there quicker. The homeboys fooling about in the front carriage made way for him instantly; this man is too manic to mess with.
The only thing Koenig seems to be happy about is the amount of money he's been making from his second novel, Little Odessa. He tells me the rights sold to Hollyood for half a million; apparently Demi Moore, Bruce Willis' actress girlfriend, is just dying to play the lead. Koenig, in contrast to virtually everyone else I've met, reckons making money from writing is a cinch. He tells me that James Ellroy had called him, mentiond that I'd be interviewing him soon. I ask Koenig how he gets along with Ellroy, and he says 'Oh, we just sit around and laugh about how much money we're making.' The implication is that if you can write, and have a reasonably pragmatic attitude towards the matter of giving the people what they want, then your financial worries are at an end. After this reverie however, Koenig is rapidly back to remembering how much he hates everything; 'Goddamn Ellroy,', he says, 'he's always calling me up. He wants to be friends, I don't need friends.
Little Odessa is the nickname for the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn, just along the way from Coney Island, a neighbourhood dominated by Russian Jews. The novel's heroine Kate Piro livs in Little Odessa and much of the action takes place round here, including a classicly Hollywood-friendly climactic scene on the Cyclone, Coney Island's great roller-coaster, still just about in service. So that's why I've dragged Koenig out here today.
Back along the pier and we're on the boardwalk, the identical boardwalk that the Drifters serenaded, as essential a part of mythical America as you could wish for. As a child I used, on special occasions, to go to Coney Beach, Porthcawl; Wales' approximation of the great American funfair, and I loved it but would speculate as to how much greater Coney Island, New York must be. So it's strange to see the place at last, and find it no bigger than the Coney Beach I remember. It is beautiful though. I'm struck once again by how much better places look when left to age rather than artificially recussitated and filled with retro burger bars. Koenig however is at pains to tell me how much better it used to be, and how dreadful it is now.
Big attraction on the boardwalk in Koenig's youth was the parachute jump, a two hundred foot high construction built for the 1939 World's Fair, the idea of which is to climb up to the top and - again as Koenig tells it - attach yourself to a kind of giant elastic band and throw yourself off, hoping that the elastic band will pull you up before you spatter your brains on the boardwalk. Unsurprisingly this was a popular activity wth teenage boys intent on impressing teenage girls. It's still here, standing apart from th rest of Coney Island like a giant, derelict pylon, lengths of elastic still hanging down from the top. I look up at it and feel sincerely grateful that I was not a teenager inlove on the boardwalk twenty years ago, as wild winged horses would not have dragged me up this thing.
Walking along the boardwalk, past the main body of the funfair, Koenig tells me a little about the summer he spent here in the mid-sixties, after being kicked out of college: "After I was kicked out, well, I wasn't the nicest person of all time. I wanted to go out west, but I didn't have any money, and I didn't want to work, get some menial job, and I had this buddy... so I hung out here. I wasn't in Brighton Beach for the whole year, but certainly for the winter. A lot of nights we'd just come out here and hang out. It was real dismal and dank, but there was still a little bit left of Coney Island then. Even on a cold January night there would still be a few thousand people playing Fascination and going on the rides. It was good. I spent most of the winter here, then in the summer I started hitchhiking around the east coast, and then they let me back into college..."
On the boardwalk itself are the usual amusement arcades and stalls selling the requisite candy floss, hot dogs, french fries and all. Behind the stalls is the funfair, with the Cyclone looming largest. Then, as we walk further along, the backdrop changes to the apartment buildings which signal the beginnings of Brighton Beach. Here we turn off the boardwalk to walk along Brighton Beach Avenue alongside the el train tracks. As we're turning the corner Koenig points out an anonymous looking apartment block. That's where Trump started out, he tells me. Apparently this was Trump senior's legacy to his son, Donald of that ilk; the entry level stake that Trump parlayed into one of the world's more spectacularly tacky empires. Tacky above all, as Garry Trudeau has long been pointing out in Doonesbury, in its relentless pursuit of the kind of 'quality' that has its apotheosis in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
Walking along Brighton Beach Avenue is a flashback to Manhattan's recent past. Its a distinctly ethnic neighbourhood, in this case Russian, of the kind that used to flourish all over Manhattan, from Little Italy to German Yorktown to Irish Washington Heights. Trump-led property price hikes have made such places all but extinct in Manhattan, but here there are restaurants with the menus in Russian, shops with Russian signs and the faces on the street are of people transplanted from a Europe that also barely exists any more. Koenig confines his conversation to commenting on how ugly and or ill-dressed everybody is.
After a while we stop under the el for me to buy a knish from a place that specialises. It's pretty good in the kind of ultra-starch way that may explain why everyone I see tends to be on the thickset side. Koenig eats nothing.
Next it's back on to the boardwalk and a stop in a Russian cafeteria where we sit down to do some questions and answers. I order a cappuccino and Koenig tell the waitress that nothing would be just fine for him. And so we start talking, Koenig so fast as to be scarcely intelligigble; 'Don't worry, even my mother can't understand me', he says, before launching into a potted summary of his career to date: "I was born in Brooklyn, school in New York. When I was 21 and finally graduated college, I immediately went up North and started working as a reporter/photographer in Providence, Rhode Island. Providence is the headquarters of the Mafia in New England, so I was immediately thrown into the world of violent crime and I liked it. Not that it was my hobby, but I wasn't put off by it. I'd see guys shot to death and..." He breaks off into a little merry hum before continuing.
"In 1967 I left that job and went to Haight Ashbury to do... that. Came back to New York very late 60s and got a job editing Front Page and Inside Detective magazines. After four years of doing that I quit to be their East Coast correspondent, which really meant that I drove up and down the east coast harvesting homicides, I had a whole network of stringers, guys who'd call me up and say 'Hey Joe, I've got a good one here in Coke Island (?) North Carolina'. Then I'd drive down and I'd talk to the cops and I'd talk to the DA, maybe I'd sit in on the trial and I would come back to New York and file copy. And then I decided I didn't want to live anywhere, I just wanted to live on the road. So I did that for years and years and years, just went around the country harvesting murders until I started writing fiction. I continued writing for the True Detective magazines for a while then my price went up to the point at which I couldn't affford my own time any more, so I gradually phased it out. Now all I do is write novels."
Finally a shaft of idealism appears in the Koenig diatribe when I ask him why he moved to writing fiction: "It seems to me that if you write anything, and you take any kind of pride in your work, then ultimately you're going to want to write novels. It's the hardest kind of writing to do, its the ultimate test of a writers craft. In my case it's not as if I got out of college and thought 'one day I'm going to write novels', but I had to test myself. Writing is a miserable life. It's a life of incredible loneliness and pain and misery - though you make a lot of dough if you're any good at it - but it's the kind of intellectual challenge of doing it.
As to why he should turn to crime fiction, it was something of a foregone conclusion: "Because you've got to write what you know best in this world, unless you're so self absorbed that you going to write another coming of age novel that the world doesn6t need. What I know better than anything else, and better than most people, is crime. Also it seemed a handy genre to slip into; there's a market for crime novels but if I was to write a 'straight' mainstream novel it would be very hard to sell."
The main legacy of Koenig's epic stint in true crime reporting seems to be an entire lack of respect for the, uh, professional practitioners. This applies to both sides of the law, though the encounters with the bad guys tended to be the more personally alarming. "I used to meet them in the worst kind of way. We'd write cases up pre-trial and very often guys who'd got off would come up to the office and start threatening us and screaming and yelling, that was always a delight. I've been associated with those magazines for twenty years, so in the last three or four years a lot of the guys I wrote about in 1969 have come out on parole. You get twmety to life, you could be out in some states in thirteen, fourteen years. They show up now wanting to talk to me. Well fuck 'em, bunch of geeks. They all blame me for being put in jail, especially the one's whose cases were written pre-trial. And they're all psychos. Murderers might be portrayed on TV as slightly troubled people who acted oddly in a moment of passion, but most of the criminals I meet are guys who, if they hadn't murdered the person they did, would have murdered somebody else. Despicable human beings..."
Not that he's got any great sympathy for the police either: "I'm not a cop-lover, in fact I don't much like cops. The ones I've met are dull, racist, narrow-minded, extremely right-wing people. I don't enjoy the company of those kind of people and it seems very dishonest to me to make my life's work portraying those people as heroic. That's crazy, so when I write a book about a cop he's usually a very flawed charcter. That's quite the opposite of the genre where the cops are these incredible, chivalrous honest people and the PI is a slightly drunken white knight and so on. That hasn't been my experience of the police I've had to deal with, on any level. When I was a newspaper reporter I found them to be extremely cowardly, guys who were afraid to talk in case they said a word out of place and lost their job. I don't like them. So my cops are always that way, and yet... There's an expression 'what's your hero's franchise' - what right does your hero have to carry a gun? - so rather than write about PIs, which is even more dishonest than writing about heroic cops, or inventing some ridiculous excuse for a guy to have a gun, I use cops. But they're jerks because I find cops to be jerks."
Koenig's first novel was called Floater and has the bones of a classic True Detective story - a serial killer meets cute with a female con-artist and they cut loose across the Florida Everglades. Unsurprisingly it was started while Koenig was still in the true crime business: "I knew I wanted to write a novel, so I tried to write a thousand words every day and after a yesr I had 100,000 words, and I thought I had a novel. But I didn't and I couldn't even get an agent for the longest time. Then I got my agent who is a saint (he is in fact the legendary Knox Burger, one of the major editors at Gold Medal in the fifties and sixties), and he helped me a lot. I rewrote a lot and immediately got four offers for the book, got nominated for three awards... Originally most of it took place in Canada, as I used to live in Montreal. When I sent it to my agent it was the part that took place in Florida he liked best, so I realised that no one in the US gives a shit about Canada, and the Canada stuff fell off."
As for choosing the Everglades setting; "I lived in Miami for a while, it seems I've lived in every inch of the US. I know the Everglades real well. When I was in Miami I had this jerky girlfriend who I didn't get along with, so I would spend one night at her house and six nights out in the Glades by myself."
Floater features about the most sympathetic cop Koenig has come up with, who is, incidentally, a black man. I ask Koenig how he came up with the character; "Whenever I'm in the South all the cops I see seem to be black, except those awful blow-dry guys in Fort Lauderdale named Ricky and Bobby, and they were just too boring to write about. But the book is very dishonest. There really are no black people in the Everglades; there are a lot of Indians, and a lot of rednecks, but no black people. I don't think they would have survived. But it made for dramatic tension so I... stuck it in."
Floater also features a particularly antisocial bad guy. A man named Francis Norodny who crashed out of a New England bourgeois upbringing in favour of an itinerant lifestyle spent in the pursuit of sociopathy, particularly the drowning of women. A trifle unnervingly he is also the one character with a hint of autobiography, sharing with Koenig his age and Russian name, even approximate physical decription. Narodny is a man whom one of his conqusets likes because of 'the nervous energy he seemed incapable of harnessing, so that it was asking too much of him to sit still for more than a few minutes', which doesn't seem too far away from the speedy, fidgeting guy I'm talking to.
With his next book, Little Odessa, however, Koenig was concerned to do somethng about his image: "I began writing Little Odessa a year before I sold Floater, while I was acquiring all these rejection letters. And the rejection leters for Floater were extremely harsh. I got one from a woman suggesting I was a serial killer. The book seemed unremittingly grim to the people who rejected it, they said there's not enough of the good guy, Koenig must be crazy, blah, blah. I wasn't going to write another one, but my agent said 'Don't worry. I know I can sell this. Write another one.' I said 'yeah??' I was a little bit embarrrassed that I had written such a grim book. I mean I'm a pretty funny guy, though you might not believe it from the way I am today, and I thought I'd write a funny book. And instead of writing about someone who can't stay in one place, I'd write about people who are trapeed in their environment. And I was aware that this scene in Little Odessa was taking place, so I wrote the book."
Not, of course that he will admit to any fondness for the area; "I'm not intersted in Little Odessa, I never come here. As you've seen for yourself it's such a boring place, with very little colour to focus on, so I had to make it all up. But I like Little Odessa best of the three books because I was really on solid footing, I could really write New York dialogue because I know that cold, it's the way I speak myself."
With his latest novel, Smuggler's Notch, the restless Koenig has changed tack once more, "It's a real morbid book, it takes place in northern Vermont and the characters are all WASPS. After I wrote Little Odessa and got the big movie sale I didn't have to prove I could write a funny book, I had the cancelled cheque to prove it. And I'd just as soon write morbid books. I mean crime is morbid. After 1,000 true crime stories I wasn't going to write a cosy vicarage tea party murder story. Murder is morbid. Chandler got it right in The Simple Art of Murder. When that woman wrote back saying I was a serial killer my agent said 'that's good, she was real moved by your book, just too stoopid to realise how moved she had been.'"
At the moment he's working furiously, frightened like Eugene Izzi that maybe one day he'll just dry up: "Right now I'm writing a book set on an island off the coast of Maine. It's not something I'm particularly proud of. It's a very honest book, but the crime is too small. Sometimes I get hung up on that honesty. My cop's life is too drab; a lot of cops I know are very drab and unexciting. So I wrote a book about a very drab cop with a very drab wife, involved with a very drab crime, and I wrote a very drab book. And now I've got to undrab it somehow. The book is in place and it makes sense but it's not exciting enough and so I'm sticking in some random sex and violence to liven it up. And I've written another book, that no one's seen, which takes place in Chinatown and I think is my funniest book. But I'm saving that in a trunk for my old age. Next up will be a longer book. After Little Odessa I started to think people would like anything I wrote as long as every third line was funny, and it has started to show. So I 'm going to try to plot a very complicated book, and have the concern of the main character as something more than catching the bad guy."
My coffee finished, this seems like a good time to start heading back. A little way along the boardwalk we come across some of the more unusual buskers I've encounterd; a trio of old men, one playing accordion, one a pre-war drum kit and the other singing, in what I take to be Yiddish, into a microphone hooked to the tinniest of speakers. It's a somewhat atonal but endearing racket, and what with that and the extraordnary pleasantness of the weather Koenig seems to be lightening up a little. While earlier in the afternoon he had seemed to me to be coming over as an Ellroy-style mavrick right-winger, now his liberal roots start to show through as we talk about the political implications of crime writing: "You say you believe in law and order, you're implying you're some sort of right-wing nut. I don't believe in the death penalty or anything like that. I just think that guys who murder people should be put away for, like, ever. Poeple who commit sex crimes should be put away for doubly ever because thay can't be rehablitated. But I'm not a law and order person, I believe in gun control. I don't have that usual crime writer's right-wing bias."
In fact crime writrs in general Koenig has little time for, "I read Chandler, Hammett, but I'm not a fan at all. It's my job not my hobby, I don't take great pleasure from it." (This sentiment, funnily enough, is almost precisely the same as one Koenig puts into Narodny's mouth in Floater, except in that instance he's talking about fraud and murder). He makes an exception, however, for the work of George V.Higgins.
By now we're back at the Coney Island subway station. Once again Koenig spends much of the journey careening from side to side of the subway car. There's still no way he's actually going to sit down, but either the edge has gone from his mood or I'm just getting used to it. We talk for a while about the cruelly underrated prison novelist Malcolm Braly. Koenig tells me that he committed suicide a few years ago, apparently he could never really handle the outside world. Then the conversation moves to music and he expresses a fondness for thirties boogie woogie piano, particularly the work of Jelly Roll Morton, and little else. Then he confesses that much of his mood is due to splitting up with this girl in Maryland, he had really thought that maybe he was going to settle down now he's bouncing round again, living out of his car, not so much rootless as uprooted. A state that he attributes to the seminal priod of his life, 1967/68 in Haight-ashbury:
"It colors my life to this day. Those days were so ecstatic, so pleasurable, that they kind of raised expectations for myself and friends of mine to the point at which... I'm not married... everybody I know is just floating around. I used to go to Berkeley every summer, I've got friends who've been trying to live that life for the past 21 years. Now, in their early 40s, they are getting their first jobs, they are called re-entry cases because these are guys who have been living outside the economy. Now they're getting entry level jobs. Those years in San Francisco made everyone think that life would be this orgiastic experience and nobody wanted to go back to the mundane business of having a family, children... So now they're dealing with the things that other people dealt with in their 20s."
As we emerge from the Subway, back in Manhattan, the East Village, I ask how come he shifted from the Haight to Front Page Detective in the space of a couple of years. "I don't want to answer that question", he says quickly and finally. And shortly he walks off fast, without, extraordinarily for an American, shaking hands. He disappears up Second Avenue, and I'm left with the 'who was that masked man' kind of feeling, and the suspicion that Joseph Koenig's dreams are not dreams I would want.
Part Two: Nick Tosches
A fifteen block walk north on Third Avenue and I'm back at my hotel, the Carlton Arms on 25th and 3rd, an old welfare hotel that's now a refuge for bohemian tourists and East Village artists who can't afford to live in the East Village any more. The presence of the latter means that the rooms tend to be decked out in murals, the one I'm in has been tricked out with a sign proclaiming to be 'The Lust Museum', which means that most of it is painted black apart from a series of extremely sub-Munch panels in luminous pinks and oranges. The effect unfortunately is to make a depressingly seedy welfare type hotel room into a depressingly dark bad-art experience. Still the Carlton is friendly and about half the price of any other hotel accommodation in New York, cheaper even than the grossly depressing YMCAs. And it still provides a home for a number of Welfare cases who mix amiably enough with the newer arrivals (first time I stayed here, around five years previous, about half the residents were hookers, but that seems to have all changed now that the Carlton's room decor is being written up in the art mags).
Being in New York is like being part way home. It's the one place I've been before, a couple of times, and there are people I can call, places I can revisit. After the continual adjustment to new environments over the past weeks this place - that on my previous visits had seemed overwhelming and at last a little dangerous - now seems sweetly famliar. Humming Oddyssey's Native New Yorker to myself I'm able to walk down to the payphme in the Carlton's lobby and start calling people up. Early evening I head up to the Upper East Side to meet my wife's aunt and cousins for dinner. After that I call up an old schoolfriend who's working for a New York law firm, but he says he'll be working through till about 1 a.m., and I end up drinking in a quiet bar on York aveneue with a woman named Tracey Kwan who writes stories for porno magazines and is the sister of a friend of mime.
Next morning I wake up late and still tired. Even breakfast in the very fine diner across the street fails to make me more than lethargic. It's an unlovely day and my mood permeates what I see of the city. Just along from the hotel, in the middle of a perfectly ordinary pavement in an average, bustling neighbourhood, I spot a strange pile of cardboard boxes. As I get closer it becomes clear that what this is is not a pile of boxes but a New York Camouflage dream home, The boxes are actually a makeshift tent. Inside I glimpse a double mattress and a couple of human shapes. No one passing by bats an eyelid at this. In New York, after all, you do what you gotta do to get by, and every man and woman has the god-given right to live in a cardboard box in the middle of a pavement (except of course when the city decides a cosmetic clean-up is in order).
None to cheered by all this I head on south and west to Nick Tosches' apartment just off Seventh Avenue in the west Village, the relatively quiet and traditional part of Greenwich Village. Nick Tosches has just written his first novel, a book about the end of an era of Italian-American crime, called Cut Numbers and mostly set around Little Italy.
The Nick Tosches who opens the door to me doesn't look like the Nick Tosches pictured on the back cover of Cut Numbers. That Nick Tosches is a serious looking fortyish fella with slicked back hair and a big moustache, wearing a chalk-stripe hustler/banker suit. This guy looks about ten years younger, wearing jeans and no moustache, and looks like the kind of guy who would have written the books that made Tosches' name, a series or books about country and rock and roll, the best and best-known being his classic biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire.
After a quick glass of juice in Tosches Manhattan-sized (i.e.nothing the average ant would have to worry about getting lost in) apartment, we decide to take a walk over to Little Italy. On our way Tosches points out the Italian-American traces left in the quiet streets around the lower reaches of Seventh Avenue; the Italo-American Friendship Society and suchlike that operate behind blacked-out windows or appear to consist only of a room with a couple of tables and a few broken chairs. These, he tells me, are the places from which the Numbers racket and much else used to operate. But now the only places with much evidence of prosperity are the funeral parlors, apart, of course, from the yuppie encroachments. Tosches comments that; " There are people that live within two doors of these places that don't know what's going on. That never used to be the case. New York is changing so fast. A lot of my next novel will have to do with the disparity of having a so-called yuppie boutique next door to a crumbling Mafia storefront - one world basically not understanding the other and yet converging."
We cross SIxth Avenue and Houston St and head south down Thompson Street, a typical SoHo street of stratospherically priced lofts and art galleries that sell the paintings of people who used to live round here, before the ad executives moved in thus pushing up housing prices to the extent that the SoHo artists now live in the East Village, if they're lucky, which has in turn put up prices there, which is why the East Village artists seem to be living in my hotel - those that aren't dead or advertsisng Absolut Vodka anyway. We emerge on Canal Street which, at this end, is full of the kind of shops that somehow specialise in selling practically everything that is cheap and that nobody needs. Passing through the northern tip of Chinatown - thankfully less of a tourist phenomenon than that in San Francisco - we head left on Mulbery Sreet into the heart of Little Italy.
Which is all cafes and restaurants and cake shops and people talking demonstratively in the streets, and generally just how you'd imagine it. We settle into a cafe on the corner of Mulbery and Grand streets to drink cappucinos and eat dangerously sweet cannoli and talk about how a man's writing career would move from country music to the numbers racket: "I was brought up in Jersey City. My mother was Irish, my father was from an Italian family, he was from the first generation to be born in America. He ran a bar in Jersey and I worked there from the age of fourteen, nepotism for you! My grandmother took the numbers. She had a dreambook and she couldn't read English so before I went to school she'd say 'look up the dead baby in the dreambook'. I'd look up 'dead baby' and she'd bet for a nickel and I'd be in for a penny. So I knew what that was all about. Then I discovered country music by hearing a record by Hank Thompson on a jukebox in Jersey City, and I just followed that up".
In 1969, aged 20, Nick Tosches moved to New York and got a job doing paste-up for the Lovable Underwear company. At the same time he started writing for Fusion magazine, a remarkable Boston rock mag that also included Lou Reed and Jonathan Richman amongst its contributors. He started writing pieces for Rolling Stone and "one day in January 1972 I just went out to lunch and decided to be a writer full-time. And that's what I've been doing ever since"
His career has moved form journalism to non-fiction books to, at last, a novel. Cut Numbers, published nearly twenty years after The Godfather, deals with the end of Italian-America as a closed community, the end of the Mafia years maybe. Little Italy is no longer what it was, the numbers racket has been taken over by the Government and called Lotto, new waves of immigrants are leaner and meaner, and for Louie Brunellesches, at the age of 35, getting ahead means Wall St and and an uptown girl named Donna Lou. I asked Nick Tosches whether he intended the story to have a general resonance for Italian-Americans, "I hope it does. A lot of people have misconstrued it as simply a thriller, but to me it's the slow parts that are important. The background to the story - the whole thing about the numbers racket and all - I'd never read anything that sort of handled that well. What things I did read seemed to be on the fantasy level, say the Godfather, raher than the way I'd known it to operate all my life which is basically on a street level with characters who were not necessarily the smartest people in the world. Or the most romantic or the best dressed."
Cut Numbers has now been bought for the movies and, just as the book provides a contrast to the Godfather image of the Mafia, so should the film. The director is set to be the maverick horror auteur George Romero, who Tosches thinks could be he right man to keep intact the combination of downbeat mood with a hard edge. Though Tosches accepts that realism ay not be the way to blockbuster success; "One interesting thing about Cut Numbers, translating it to the screen everybody says the amounts of money aren't large enough. People who go to the movies want to hear about things in the millions, even though its not their money. I had actual amounts, 50,000 dollars, 100,000, but people like to dream big. So I guess to a certain extent the fantasy will always be more popular than the fact of things."
Meanwhile he's busy on a couple of other projects. One has been in the pipeline for years and should mark Tosches' last foray into non-fiction, a biography of Dean Martin, Italian -American icon and enigma; "The question at the heart of it will be who is this guy and why am I interested in him? It will also deal with the nature of showbiz, the recording industry, the movie industry and connections between organised crime and those industries. Also AMerican culture in general. He's one of the few entertainers who's had an interesting life. Jerry Lee Lewis and Dean Martin were the only two entertainers I ever really wanted to write about."
Also on the go is a second novel: "It's called Scratch and it's the story of a rather dull, rather unsympathetic, mediocre accountant who somehow becomes interesting in the course of his own downfall amd demise. The background of the book is counterfeiting and pornography; everything takes place against those two worlds. This mild inconsequential accountant gets involved in things far greater than he is. No one knows what's at the centre till the final hand is dealt, no one knows what's real or what isn't, so the counterfeiting thing goes right through it. The pornography is just a sideline because that's the counterfeiter's legitimate activity. And, uh, a little sex never hurt a book. And that's that one. It has either the promise or the danger of being far darker than Cut Numbers but we'll see..."
We get to talking about other writers a little, and it emerges that Tosches has a somewhat unusual set of influences for a man with a lowlife fascination; "Most of what I have read and continue to read predates this century. I'm pretty much back in antiquity, I read the classics and ancient history, mediaeval history, and dabble in modern things. Most of the contemporary fiction I read doesn't grab me enough to want to consume very much. In terms of influence, most of them are back in antiquity. I don't know if that makes any sense considering the way I write. I like Thucydides, Homer, Pindar, Herodotus, Hesiod... I've always enjoyed seeing who said what first, and if the same thing has been said in 400bc and in 1964, why bother with 1964. Very rarely does a contemporary writer strike me as doing something new; that's what struck me years ago about George V.Higgins - to me that seemed so new and so good. I still don't think his importance as a writer is acknowledged."
So, turning it back round on him, I wonder why such a classical kind of guy should write about such a bunch of low-rent hoodlums: "It's like Faulkner said, you write about what you know best in settings you know best. That's pretty much the only way to go about it. You can call it crime fiction but basically, no matter if they are a priest or whatever, everybody has the same criminal elements in them. It doesn't interest people to read something they don't intuit to be part of themselves, that's why people don't really read the Lives Of The Saints."
Nick Tosches suggests a third round of cappuccinos at this point and, fearing a total caffeine overload, I wonder if it would be possible to get a beer some place instead. He pauses briefly and says sure, there's a place we could go. We head back over towards his apartment. On the way Tosches dives into a newsstand to put some money on a Lotto number. Lotto is the scheme New York State came up with to finally kill the numbers racket; basically just a legalised version. "Even though gambling is illegal, New York State is now New York's biggest bookmaker, if you can figure that out", comments Tosches.
The bar is tucked out of the way, dark, quiet and old-fashioned in a serene, steady-drinking kind of way. It's not a lot different from the bar called Mona's that Cut Numbers hero, penny ante loan shark Louie Brunellesches, frequents in Cut Numbers. Tosches says hello to the bar-staff and orders a club soda - Louie's drink. Louie's a gambler, an inveterate Numbers speculator, and Tosches' talk too is littered with gambling metaphors. Midway through the novel Louie wises up to the fact that Wall Street has essentially the same rules and ethics as the numbers game, but the odds are better. And suddenly Louis is no longer a lowlife gambler but a high-tone investor. Tosches, himself, is cynically amused by the similarities between the two worlds: "It's just the same old story, they end up in debt too, just like the peopl who play the numbers or take the numbers. Except, as I tried to point out in the book, it has a veneer of science to it... It's like the middle ages, they think if you use the right graphs and project the right factors into the computer, you can come out knowing what's going to go up or come down. All forms of financial analysis are basically high class dream books."
So does he have any direct experience of this kind if up-market gambling himself? "I had followed it for the last ten, fifteen years, and I got heavily into it when I did a book wih Michele Sindona. I had to study a lot for that and, uh, I've done some investing on my own. I've always approached it with the attitude that it was basically a fancily dressed racket."
Which sounds a litle like a euphemism for 'I got shafted', but what the hell. The Sindona book is Tosches' least known work, but perhaps his most intriguing project; the authorised biography of the man in the middle of the Vatican banking scandal: "I needed to come up with an idea for another non-fiction book and nothing appealed to me. I had long been aware of Sindona and I caught a flash on the news, saying he was in prison here in America, and I thought 'Boy, that's a guy I'd like to write a book about; he's involved with the Vatican, banking, the Mafia, everything - five hundred million dollars up, then down the drain in prison'. But I thought there'd be no way. Then someone said 'write him a letter', so I did, and then I heard from his lawyer, and that's how it came about."
"In the mean time, by the time I sold the book idea, he had been extradited to Italy to stand trial after he'd been sentenced here in America. The publisher wanted proof Sindona was willing to do it, so I had to go over to Italy, get into this prison. They had him in this women's prison - the only man in what happens to be the highest security prison in Italy. I had to get all ths authorisation to get in, then I had to convince him to sign this piece of paper, which is one thing he hated to do. But he did, and then we were in business. Then, not long after I'd finished writing the book, I got a strange letter from him. Actually first I heard that he was dead, then, two days later, I got the letter - strange to get a letter from someone who is dead, It started off in English and ended up in Italian, and he talked about... if something happens to me don't be alarmed... I believe in God and the Final Judgement... all this eerie stuff. That was that book."
"The book was too complicated to have a mass appeal - the average guy would sooner go to the races than put his glasses on and read something like that. It did well in Italy, because he was much more notorious there and the publishers sensationalised it a lot. It was a legal nightmare. I had gone to a lot of trouble to corroborate certain things, but they they said no way. And those would have been the most interesting things in the book. Especially as I knew they were true, had found people who were witnesses, but that's lawyers for ya, I guess."
And on that rather downbeat note we wind up what was been a rather downbeat interview. It's a grey day, I'm tired through and through, sick of asking people questions and Tosches too has seemed preoccupied, eager to be helpful but slightly abstracted. We walk around the Village a little making desultory conversation with the over elaborate courtesy of people who've just had a rather indifferent time in bed together. So it goes
Part Three: Andrew Vachss
The Lincoln cruised Broadway, hugging the curb. A block-long video-game parlor washed the sidewalk with flashing strobe-lights. Electronic war-sounds poured through its doors, a harsh wave dividing the kids lurking on the sidewalk. Black teenagers were standing to one side in little groups, their pockets emptied of quarters by the machines inside, alert for another penny-ante score so they could go back inside. The white boys on the other side of the doors were younger - they cruised quietly, hawk eyes watching the cars for a customer. The groups never mixed. The black rough-off artists knew better than to move on the little stud-hustlers - a kid peddling his under-age ass and telling himself he's not really homosexual will be happy to stab you to prove it. (Andrew Vachss - Strega)
Next morning the alarm yanks me out of slumber at seven o'clock. Half an hour later I'm standing outside the Carlton waiting for Andrew Vachss to show. Right on the minute a sleek white motor draws up and out gets a wiry Italian-looing guy of indeterminate age, wearing an eye-patch. He shakes my hand, says 'Hey John, how're you doing? Let's get going.' This is Andrew Vachss and he's going to take me on a motor tour round the New York badlands.
I've met Vachss before. He's a lawyer specialising in child abuse cases who writes novels featuring a survivalist P.I. named Burke who also specialises in child abuse cases, books set in a nightmare vision of New York. And, perhaps more than any other writer working in the field of crime, he walks it like he talks it. First time I met him was in his law offices eighteen floors above Broadway at it's Wall Street end. "You're English", he said, "I love the English; you like dogs". He took me over to the wall and showed me pictures of his dogs. First up is a Rottweiler attack hound, pictured leaping, teeth bared, at the camera. I tried to think of something suitably English to say and he pointed at his Neapolitan mastiff. This looks like a panther on steroids. 'Better than a gun," he commented. "Dogs don't rust". Which attitude is no distance from that of the fictional Burke
Julio loves my dog. Her name is Pansy and she's a Neapolitan mastiff - about 140 pounds of vicious muscle and dumb as a brick. If her entire brain was high-quality cocaine, it wouldn't retail for enough cash to buy a decent meal. But she knows how to do her work, which is more than you can say for a lot of fools who went to Harvard. (Strega)
Soon as I've sat myself down in the passenger seat, Vachss asks me to lock my door, being a man who firmly believes that not to be paranoid in New York is a form of insanity, and we're off. Down to Fourteenth Street and then south and west, through the top of the neighbourhood Vachss grew up in, where his grandfather had a half dozen or so different businesses - that being the American way. From there we cut through the meat market on the fringe of the west village before manoeuvring on to the West Side Highway heading north. Suddenly Vachss swings the car on to a stretch of vacant tarmac and weeds, between the road and the Hudson river. He stops the car and tells me that: "This is a place that's used to meet anybody for anything, you can pull in here at night and you can pay attention to what you're doing, while keeping good control of the situation. There's no place to hide and you're safe behind you, so its always been a place where people get together to do what they're going to do. You won't see traffic in guns here much, more likely to see other kinds of contraband, guns for instance. It's also always been a place gay people could operate with some degree of freedom from the fag-bashing idiots in Central Park and this has always been a hustlers' stroll."
Today's deal is that Vachss will show me some of the places he works in and writes about but not any of the people he works with or for. He is keen to stress that his books are books, his work a matter of life and death. So now we cruise up the West Side Highway for a while, Vachss pointing out the sights as we go along. "There's some really hardcore bars along here. The Badlands over here is a typical example - not a very inviting looking place but it has what a certain type of people want, so it thrives," he says, pointing at a severely mean waterfront bar. Then other landmarks catch his atention, "This is allegedly a hotel, they work by the hour... There's a lot of borderline prostitution around here - borderline meaning 17 or 18 year olds - nothing the cops are going to pay a lot of attention to, not children which you're going to have to go to Times Sq for... this is essentially the trucker trade... when you get down by the tunnel, that's the commuter trade." Soon enough we're past 30th, approaching the tunnel and the hookers have all disappeared with the dawn, so Vachss contents himself with pointing out "a nice muggers roost right on the underpass - you know the guys who come up to clean your windshield? - well the way they work it is, one guy comes to clean you windshield, but there's a post with another guy standing behind it. If you're dumb enough to stop then this guy comes out and helps himself."
A right turn takes us on to 42nd street, sex trade central between Tenth and Times Square. On our right is one of the world's seediest public transportation centres; the Port Authority Bus Station. "You can scoop kids up there any time you like," says Vachss, "mind you'll have a lot of competition doing it." For the next few blocks 42nd street is all porn parlors, cinemas offering martial arts triple bills, and some remarkably unsavoury eating places - "see those flamesteak joints - Tads and Embers - they serve food would be outlawed in a POW camp."
At this hour of the morning the only people out on this particular mean street are the seriously lost. "See, not a citizen among them. These people are left over from last night, they did not just get up! One of the best spots for little boys is right around the corner in the arcade. You walk down this street with a hundred dollar bill, by the time you reach the end, you could find five people, do whatever you want. It's supposedly changing, because they're redeveloping, but the notion of this kind of traffic disappearing is ludicrous. You can move it, that's all."
Someone who looks like their whole life is a near death experience staggers out in front of us. "He's been picked clean", says Vachss. Past Times Square - seediness tiredly incarnate - and the neighbourhood begins to gain tone. By the eastern end we're at the United Nations, which is about as anodyne as you can get, and we turn left on to the East River Drive, or 'this miserable chunk of battered concrete,' as Vachss refers to it.
There's nothing in particular to see for a little while, so I introduce the main topic of New York conversation of the moment, the Central Park Rape. This was an incident happened a couple of days before: a white woman, a 28-year-old fast-track investment banker was out jogging in Central Park in the late evening, around ten o'clock. She was toward the northern end of the park, where it borders Harlem rather than high-rent apartment blocks, when she had the misfortune to run into a gang of bored and sociopathic teenagers from the Schomburg Housing Projects in Harlem. She ended up raped, sodomised and beaten so badly that as we speak she's in a coma from which her chances of recovering mentally intact are not rated too highly *(since then she has come out of the coma, and there doesn't seem to be brain damage). A bunch of boys have been arrested, and the public has been horrified to discovr that most of them are thirteen or fourteen years old. Now every pundit in town is having their say-so on the matter. Right wing whites are going, 'huh, told you so' or fulminating about the death of the family; liberal whites arw hand-wringng about inner city deprivation; certain blacks, notably the editors of black New York newspaper the Amsterdam News, are blaming the whole business on the brutality of racism; others while deploring the incident are pointing out that similar incidents in which the victim too is black go virtually unreported. What has emerged is that New York is a desparately divided city, not that that should be news to anyone.
Suddenly armies of mostly white newspaperpeople are trying to report on the lives of marginal youth, of whom they clearly know nothing. This is neatly illustrated by the 'wilding' business. One of the first reports of the rape quoted one of the boys involved as saying they had been out 'wilding'. Suddenly the New York press is full of articles about 'wilding', the appalling craze that has swept the ghettoes. Only trouble is, no ghetto youth has ever heard of such a word. Though, such is the way of things, the term has now had such pubicity that it enters the language anyway.
Vachss too has enterd the opinion wars, the day before he wrote a piece for New York Newsday, arguing against the focus on one spectacularly appalling event rahter than seeing it as a part of a long-running problem; "What I said was that calling these kids mutants is ridiculous because there have always been such kids. I gave examples through history and I pointed out that with gangs - if they have a sociopathic core - you get this type of behaviour. But to call it the breakdown of the American family... Its stupid. The point of my piece was that rhetoric is real cheap and so the politicians are elbowing each other for centre stage to express their so-called outrage, but the real point is that there have been hundreds of gang rapes in this town recently. This is just the one they've reported; giving people a very illusory idea, similar to thinking that Lisa Steinberg (??) was the only child that's ever been beaten to death."
By now we're up past Central Park and at 125th St we turn right on to the Triboro Bridge which links Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx. But we're going to none of those now. A slip road takes us down on to Randall's Island in the East River, and from there we head on to Wards Island, a desolate spot whose major attractions are a hospital for the criminally insane and a toxic waste dump. We pull up on a scrap of no man's land underneath the bridge. "At night this is as no-mans-land as you can get. It's used for trading guns or if you're holding somebody and I'm holding somebody, then this is a good place, cause we can each see each oher. And it's a place where you can fire a gun and no one will hear. I've been here late at night and it's been full of people like a crazed version of Lover's Lane. I've had people ask to meet me here, and, of course its my habit that if they say they want to meet me at 8, I'll be here at 4 to have a look around. Cause the rules are you're supposed to come alone, but nobody does that. That's why the dog is so valuable. If I meet you here and I've got the dog in the car you really can't complain that the dog's an informant. So if your intentions are, if not honourable, at least not homicidal, then you really can't complain about the dog. The other thing I can do is I can put the dog in the trunk, because I've got this switch here, just pops the trunk open a little bit. And the longer you leave him in there the more obnoxious he's going to be when he comes out."
The place figures in Vachss' latest novel Hard Candy, a book that oddly seems to be both the most personal and the most cartoonish of the series. Burke runs through these same routines with his dog, which is of course an identical dog. A place that figures in all the books is where we're headed next, a junkyard out at Hunt's Point
To get there we've got to go through the South Bronx, so it's back up on to the Triborough Bridge and down on to Grand Concourse, the once-elegant main street of the Bronx, now a largely burnt out Hispanic ghetto. Another grim news story of the previous couple of days records a baby being found dead behind one of these buildings. As far as can be judged, the baby was thrown out of a window shortly after birth and lay there for two days. The neighbours say they thought it was a doll.
A quick right turn on to Bruckner Boulevard takes us towards Hunt's Point and the neighbourhood gets worse. Now virtually all the buildings are burnt out. The only amenities are heavily fortified liquor stores and desperate bars. The degree of ruination is shattering, it's not even menacing in the way of, say, near West-side Chicago, it's just destroyed, more like Beirut than a suburb of America's major city.
"It astounds me when people write about what they call the mean streets. The streets they're talking about - they're dirty, they've got a lot of vice on them, but they're not these kind of anarchistic places where there's no law. You can drive around here for weeks and not see a police officer. What it is is exclusively hard-core. Anybody who lives here has got to scrabble." A young black woman emerges from a burnt-out building, she's smartly dressed, looks to be on her way to work in Manhattan. Which seems like a hell of an achievement, to make anything of your life when you are coming out of this. Vachss concurs, "This is absolutely the end, you can buy whatever humans have to sell right here.
Another right turn and the housing stops as we emerge on to what Vachss refers to sardonically as 'the prairie', a maze of junkyards and deadlands surrounding the sprawling Hunts Point meat-market. On week days, when the trucks run through to the market, this road is the centre for the most desperate prostitution he city offers; to be a Hunt's Point whore is the lowest you can go in that particular line of work. The area's only full time inhabitants are packs of dogs of a strain that even Vachss finds alarming: "The dogpacks come out at night. They are the absolute cutting edge f Darwinism - wild dogs in the city. The dogs are a unique breed because there's the meat market here and they throw out these huge slabs of fat - so you have seagulls fighting with the dogs for this stuff. The seagulls have wingspans like bald eagles, razor beaks and don't back away from the dogs. The ones that live through this horror are just the toughest of both. People come here to get puppies; you get a puppy out of the pack you've got the toughest thing you can find, it'll swallow a pit-bull."
We pass the gates of the meat-market, a place that has a level of protection more appropriate to a maximun security prison or a nuclear weapons plant than a commercial market - armed guards, interlocking fences and razor wire. Razor wire is everywhere round here, it even protects the junkyards down on the southern tip where we park the car and look out over some deserted badlands at the grey river. "It's even mean water, if you look at it', says Vachss, before swiveling and pointing at the sign on a gate. "See where it says 'Dead End'? Truer words were never fucking spoken." Beneath the sign is an abandoned child's tricycle. God knows how or why.
Driving back around the meat market there's a dead dog lying in the middle of the road, outsize carrion seagulls circle above it, 'city vultures'in Vachss lexicon. "There's one that didn't make it," he says, "that about sums it up. She will lie there and rot till you see the bones in the street. Is this too disgusting for you?"
By now I'm feeling too stunned to feel sick and on we go, circling back towards the Triborough Bridge. Suddenly Vachss points towards a stretch of wire with a clump of bushes behind. I can't see anything. He stops so I can take a closer look. After a while I make out the outline of a car, "You see that, New York Camouflage, that's a pretty new car. Now how did it get there? Who'd go to the trouble of getting it through that fence when you can leave it right here? I'll bet you look in the trunk of that car you'll find something you don't want. You have to ask yourself some questions - here's a fairly new car hidden behind razor wire, right over there is a junkyard buys old cars - how come?"
Gradually the area starts getting residential again. We pass a desolate street named Casanove and Vachss rmemebers a funny thing that happened when he was was working as a cab driver, something he's done on and off for years, "I still have the licence, it's the ultimate investigator's tool. Nobody sees a cab, you can circle a block twelve times and no one pays attention."
What happened was like this: "I was on these streets one night with a complete homicidal maniac, scared me to death. He'd apparently had some kind of horrible tragedy. I was way over on the other sde of Queens and his friend said would I take him to the Bronx. The way he told the story his wife was a particulaly beautiful woman, much younger than him, and for some reason she lost all her hair. Then she found this lunatic doctor who said he could graft a wig on to her, and she died on the operating table that night. The doctor was from Argentina and this guy kept asking me are you Spanish? Do you know anyone from Argentina? And he kept saying, 'oh my poor girl, my poor girl', and he'd beat the dashboard into pulp. When we came to a tollbooth he said to the guy 'watch my face because tomorrow you'll see it on the cover of the Daily News. Tonight I kill'. And he kept asking if I could find someone from Argentina so he could kill them. And I go 'sure pal whatever you want'. And he kept directing me to darker and darker places, till finally I said, 'I think someone from Argentina lives just down the block.' When he asked where, I said 'just open the door and take a look out', and, as he did I spun around on the seat, put both feet on him and kicked him out the door. Foot down on the gs and took off, listening to him scream. I had had more than enough."
Vachss breaks off from reminiscence to point out, on our right, the Spofford Juvenile Detention Centre. It holds chilfren from seven or eight years old up to sixteen. It's where several of the boys accused in the Central Park case are held, and it look indistinguishable for an adult prison, "yeah, it's just like Attica, smaller scale that's all", just in a grimmer neighbourhood than most. Apparently, whether or not sections of the black press think of the boys as victims, their fellow inmates do not, and there have already been several assaults on them inside.
We emerge on to Bruckner Boulvard, joining the traffic speeding out of the South Bronx. As we pull up at the lights I notive that the guy in the car next to us is shaking convulsively, "yeah, he's a crackhead. You don't want to get in any confrontation with him, he's wired like a goddamm Christmas tree." So what's his attitude to New York's drug traffic? "I'm really in favour of legalising it. It's made millionaires out of teenage robot mutants. I've always been astounded by people who say they have moral qualms against dope, but not liquor stores."
Øver the Triborough Bridge and we're at the eastern end of 125th st, Harlem's main drag. There's talk lately of Harlem being the new growth area for gentrification now that lower Manhaan has been almost entirely reclaimed for the sushi-eating clases. Vachss says that this is indeed the case; "Harlem now wouldn't be in the top ten dangerous areas in this city. It's been incredibly gentrified. When I was a kid, 96th St was the border, no more, yuppies are away past 96th. It doesn't necessarily make the area any better but it does mean a better level of city services."
We're not heading for Harlem, though, instead we're going back down the East River Drive towards where I'm staying, where we'll pick up a bite to eat. As we drive down the conversation finally shifts from New York as urban hell to matters of writing. I ask Vachss whether he plans writing the Burke novels indefinitely; "I've written a lot of short pieces recently because that's more my taste, anyway. I don't want to delude myself, there's some market for the books I'm writing, enought to ensure the promotion and so on that I want, but I don't hear anyone beating down my door, asking for a mainstram, so-called, novel. Still I'm not done writing the one book that I wanted to write, so its a little premature for me to switch."
He mentions that his novels are now translated into most of the languages into which books are translated, and that they seem to be finding an audience world-wide - apart from South Africa where he won't let them be published. Then the conversation turns to other writers. I ask how he likes Nick Tosches portrayal of his old neighbourhood. He ays that he was unimpressed by Tosches knowledge of weaponry and leaves it at that. Then he asks me how I got on with James Ellroy. I tell him and then Vachss tells me he's been seeing a fair bit of Ellroy: "Poor James, he's learning about life the hard way. He always wanted to do something to assist me in what I do so I hooked him up as a big brother to a proper little sociopath. James is hanging in tough, but there is nothing in his background that enables him to deal with someone who just doesn't have certain cards in their deck. But he's stuck with it. You know, though he writes about all these horrible folk, he'd never met any. Now he has you can see that it's truly shocking to him that there could be young children who don't have any feelings."
We pass Bellevue Hospital, "that's where you go if you get shot or stabbed," says Vachss. So has he been so wounded? "I've been shot at without any one ever succeeding in hitting me, and sliced but never stabbed," he says (neat distinction, huh). Then Vachss points out a team of black girls going off to play Double Dutch, ultra-intricate skipping routines and this leads me to mention my fondness for doo-wop, the street-corner vocal harmony sound of New York in the Fifties, performed particularly by blacks and Italians. Turns out that this is Vachss great musical love. He reaches down, switches on the tape machine and suddenly the sound of the Chantels - one of the few all-girl doo-wop groups, best known for the transcendent Maybe, written by their fourteen year old lead singer Arlene Smith - floods the car. We listen for a while and Vachss sighs and says "there's so much more emotional content is a song like this than in anything the modern groups do."
On 25th street we park and find ourselves an anonyous diner, quiet on a Saturday morning. Once I've ordered bacon and eggs and stuff I ask Vachss to give me a rundown on how his career took him here
"I began professionally as an investigator for the federal government tracking down chains of sexually transmitted diseases. That naturally led one to children and naturally made you sick. I'm not a naive person, I was raised on these streets and I still didn't believe that people would have sex with a nine month old baby. But a nine month old baby with rectal gonorrhea answers that question. Ever since, my life has followed a thematic direction.. case worker then supervisor for the City Department of Social Services. I was in charge of a unit, generic social work."
"After that was Biafra. the deal was billions of dollars had been raised for starving Biafran kids and the war reached a stage that no other war had reached, in that a Red Cross plane was actually shot out of the sky and Biafra became landlocked, so there was no way in and no more reports as to what was happening to the aid. So a group of foundaions essentially looked for someone crazy or stupid enough to try and penetrate the war zone on their own and report back as to whether the money was actually being ranslated into food, and if not some suggestions as to how it could be. And that's the mission that I undertook. In order to do that I had to go to Lisbon, Geneva, Angola, south Dahomey... I finally got inside, did what I was supposed to do, didn't take long. I spent the rest of the time trying to get out and that was it. No more to it than that."
After that I had a number of organising jobs... Chicago, Indiana, I engd up running a centre for transplanted migrants, Appalachians, in Chicago. After that got how I wanted it to be it I drifted. I was always drifting at this time, I went to Massachussets and ran a re-entry centre for former prisoners. Out of that came running a maximum security prison. Out of that came the final total failure of my health which was residual from Biafra and all the injuries. At which point I entered Law School. And I went to Law School with the malice aforethought of only representing children. Because many of the teenagers that I had in the prison really came there because of what was done to them before they did to others. I worked through law school at, for me, some relatively intellectual jobs, as a planner and analyst, finished law school, and drove a cab till I raised enough money to open my own office and I have been in practice ever since."
So it wasn't a case of Vachss having been, himself, abused? "I grew up on the westmost fringe of Little Italy. My mother raised me alone during the war and when my father returned - my father was a horribly abused child and the abuse only stopped when he reached his full size - my father made up his mind he would never use violence against children. Though he was a violent man, if you met him in a bar he'd knock you down. But no, not only was I not abused, compared to my peers I was utterly coddled".
The cases in Vachss' books tend to involve abused children, child pornographers, snuff movie makers. Burke is no social worker, he has no belief in rehabilitating the paedophiles and sadists that he simply refers to as 'freaks'. Burke's street justice is swift and brutal, but Vachss is not prepared to accept that Burke's war on the freaks amounts to a Death Wish-style vigilante credo; "Burke is not a vigilante. He never goes after anyone gratuitously, He is no White Knight, he never does anything unless he's compensated. I don't call a vigilante someone who goes after people outside of the law, if he is himself outside of the law".
The questin that remains is why, having established himself as a lawyer, he started writing thrillers? "I wrote a lot of non-fiction (on child abuse) and it struck me that the audience was limited by the genre, it was just reaching a professional audience; the kind of material I'm dealing with needs to be in the public domain ,and the best way to do it is to write 'fiction'".
As for why Vachss chose to write thrillers rather than 'serious fiction': "I think what I'm writing is quite serious and has been accepted as such, but it is about crime. I couldn't write a poem about kiddy pornography. Perhaps my vocabulary is closer to the gutter than the ivory tower, but it doesn't mean I'm not serious about what I'm doing".
There is little doubt about that, throughout both our meetings it has been quite clear that he is far less concerned with discussing his work as a writer, than talking about his writing as one part of a personal crusade against the peculiar problem of child abuse. The objection which can be made to Vachss' furious and graphic fiction is that in dealing with such taboo areas in a popular medium the writer involves himself in voyeurism and a complicity with the exploitation he condemns. Vachss weighs this and replies; "I think that any time you write about evil and you write about it accurately you risk replicating it. If you write about child pornography you risk depicting it in such a way that it could be titillating to those interested in such a subject. But I think if you are not willing to come close to the line you don't come very close to reality".
I suggest that his disgusted attack on the Times Square sex-trade could be seen as a promo for the pro-censorship lobby. "My position on pornography is quite simple. You can argue about Penthouse or Playboy or things of that ilk. Child pornography, a picture of a child engaged in a sexual act, is a photograph of a crime and you cannot argue about that. It is, per se, illegal, illicit and immoral. It is unfortunate that my work is taken up by people with whom I am not allied. For example, if you misread my work, and you'd have to do it deliberately, you could decide that I have an anti-homosexual bias. Which is absolutely untrue and I stand for the proposition that a paedophile and a homosexual are two different creatures entirely, yet there are people who are homophobic who sieze on my work and say that this is homosexuality run amok. It's no such thing any more than someone molesting a little girl is heterosexuality run amok".
And now its time for him to move. We leave the diner and Andrew Vachss, the undisputed king of the hard-boiled kung-fu novel gets into his car, reflexively locks the door, and drives off to a fortified home somewhere in the city, shared with his wife and his dogs; in his car the sound of the Chantels singing about the heartbreak of love, with a mixture of teenage longing and childish naivete. Some part perhaps of why Vachss does what he does.