In the years I've known children's lawyer and crime fiction writer Andrew Vachss, I've been routinely bowled over by his prescience for...
In the years I’ve known children’s lawyer and crime fiction writer Andrew Vachss, I’ve been routinely bowled over by his prescience for the putrid. He insists it’s extrapolation: a Columbine-style massacre rejected as unrealistic when he wrote it in 1973; online trafficking of child porn before it became a staple for predators.
But you’d have to be a time traveler to plan for current events tied to his latest novel, “Two Trains Running” (Pantheon, $25): The Justice Department recently re-examined the body of Emmett Till, the black teenager whose 1955 murder for supposedly whistling at a white woman helped spark the civil-rights movement. And Edgar Ray Killen was convicted this week of manslaughter for the 1964 deaths of three civil-rights workers.
A departure from his series about outlaw vigilante Burke, “Two Trains” goes down in a little powder keg of a Southern town in 1959, where the arrival of hit-man Walker Dett ignites a war between black and white gangs, the “hillbilly” crime boss is threatened by Italian and Irish mobsters with a stake in getting JFK elected, black militants and neo-Nazis are gearing up, and the FBI stirs it all with a shadowy hand.
I got the lowdown from Vachss, a New Yorker residing of late in the Pacific Northwest.
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If novels are Trojan horses for your messages, how does “Two Trains” fit in?
To me, this book is less a Trojan horse than it is my ode to journalism. It’s my belief that journalism — specifically investigative journalism, but any journalism that informs — is what protects democracy. And if you subtract journalism you don’t have democracy. What I wanted to get out of this book was not to answer questions but to raise a whole new crop of questioners. The book is not just my ode to journalism, but the civil-rights struggle as metaphor for a child-protection war that’s going on in this country right now.
If you look at what’s going on right now, it’s almost a confluence of the planets with this book. They’ve just exhumed Emmett Till’s body. They’ve got Killen on trial for killing (Michael) Schwerner, (James) Chaney and (Andrew) Goodman. Case after case from that era is being resurrected.
Andrew Vachss will discuss “Two Trains Running,” 7:30 tonight, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
What do they all have in common? You know what? Somebody looked at the FBI files. There’s your subject, and to me, if investigative journalism turned its bright hard light on the whole child protective industry in this country on both sides of that fence, we might get a galvanized public as we’re now beginning to get about civil-rights issues that in fact took place half a century ago.
But how do you draw younger people into that era of history?
One way is my “speculative” analysis of how Al Capone could have acquired syphilis. People have read that, and they’ve written to the Web site and said, “Wow, this is some fantasy. What is a Tuskegee experiment anyway?” Well, when you answer that question for them, now it begins to make some sense. That’s the technique I’m trying to use here. This is not alien abduction. I’ve got so much fact in here that I don’t believe the facts can be denied. I admit that I speculate and create arcs, but I think I defend the speculation, and I’m not asking you to buy it. I’m asking you to question it.
Who’s Walker Dett?
Walker Dett is a debt walking. He represents all those people who were present at the scene and either reached out to the government or the government reached out to them, but for whatever reason maintained their silence as horrors took place around them. And it’s my speculation that at least one man out of all of that would want to atone.
Why did you want to tell this story?
For so many reasons, but the biggest reason of all is we’re losing our interest — never mind our obsession — in truth. Journalism is turning into a bunch of entertainment, and writers — and I’m talking about journalists now, not fiction writers — are being judged by how well they write as opposed to what they write. I think that journalism is absolutely the ICU of democracy. If it’s not working, we die. A whole way of life dies. And what I really wanted to say to people is “You’re taking too much for granted.”
Are you done with Burke?
I can tell you the title of the next Burke book, so I guess I’m not done with it. “Mask Market.”
What’s it about?
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or firstname.lastname@example.org