Andrew Vachss Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Andrew Vachss 1942–

American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents criticism of Vachss's work through 1997.

Drawing upon more than twenty years of experience in the field of child welfare, Vachss (pronounced "vax") writes novels that address the issues of child abuse and exploitation. Most of these novels revolve around the character known only as Burke, a self-styled private investigator who employs violence when dealing with "freaks"—people who perpetrate crimes against children.

Biographical Information

Born in 1942, Vachss grew up on the Lower West Side of Manhattan. After graduating from Western Reserve University in 1965, he held a series of public service positions with organizations such as the U.S. Public Health Service in Ohio, the Department of Social Services in New York City, and the Medfield-Norfolk Prison Project in Massachusetts. In 1972, he became director of ANDROS II, a maximum-security juvenile facility near Boston. During this time, Vachss resumed his education, earning his J.D. from the New England School of Law in 1975. In 1976, Vachss established his juvenile-defense law practice, devoting his time exclusively to child welfare issues. Because the children he defends lack the resources to pay him, Vachss began writing fiction to supplement his income. In 1983, Vachss started writing bits of plot, dialogue, and character sketches on index cards, collecting them in a box; the result was his first novel, Flood (1985). In addition to numerous "Burke" novels, Vachss has produced a collection of essays and prose poems and has worked with Dark Horse comics to produce graphic adaptations of his short stories. Vachss also maintains a homepage on the World Wide Web, entitled "The Zero," containing information and resources on his work and the topics covered in his novels (see www.vachss.com). Vachss and his wife, Alice, also an attorney, live in New York.

Major Works

Though he had published The Life-Style Violent Juvenile: The Secure Treatment Approach (1979) six years earlier, Vachss first drew critical attention with the publication of Flood, the novel that introduces his favorite protagonist, Burke. Rather than subscribe to the standard conventions of the detective novel protagonist, Vachss has created in Burke the atypical hero, described by David Morrell as "a con-man, a survivor, a cynic, a repressed romantic and a very dangerous guy." Burke is an ex-convict who makes his living selling fake identification, doing "dirty work" for wealthy clients, and, on occasion, serving as a private investigator on cases dealing with the abuse and exploitation of children. The perpetrators of these crimes against children usually meet with a violent end, courtesy of Burke. Some critics have argued that Burke's vigilante justice is a form of "wish fulfillment" for Vachss, allowing him to achieve retribution that is unavailable through legal means. To this Vachss has responded, "I've never considered that…. I've tried to keep my books tight within the realm of what actually can happen."

Critical Reception

Vachss's novels have met with popular appeal, but critical reviews of his work are mixed. David Morrell of the Washington Post praises Vachss's style, saying that "the words leap off the page …, and the style is as clean as haiku." Others have credited him for the creation of an original protagonist and an intriguing supporting cast. Some reviewers, however, have criticized Vachss for redundant plot elements and a lack of character development through the course of the Burke series. The harshest criticism of his work has come from those who claim that Vachss himself is guilty of exploiting children by making them the focus of his novels. To these critics, Vachss has responded, "I'm curious to know how you could bring about social change without acknowledging the existence of that you wish to change."