Choice of Evil

by Andrew Vachss

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

305 pages, 1999

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Prime Evil

Reviewed by Ian Grey


James Ellroy recently said that "the great unspoken theme in noir fiction is male self-pity." He has a point: what else is noir but an almost fetishistic glamorization of romantically wretched/"fated" males? Guys who insist on living in swine-filled cesspool cities, who inevitably favor mega-screwed-up -- but neatly-coutured -- fatales to help gum up their hopeless quests du jour, which inevitably lead to glamorously lonely hours drinking rotgut in glumly evocative settings?

Of course, Ellroy is as guilty of this love of self-pitying losers as anyone. As readers, we also can't get enough of this. But Ellroy makes a very large assumption.

As the title, Choice of Evil, makes ironically clear, Andrew Vachss' characters -- the most soul-shredded of society's cast-offs, grown-up but spiritually malformed survivors of sexual and violent childhood abuse -- do not have time for the luxury of self-pity. Just surviving the day semi-sane is daunting enough.

Under the cover-story of "detective fiction," noir or what-have-you, Vachss has been steadily writing about child abuse, sexual terrorism, mass murder, snuff film "culture," kiddie porn, and, as hard as it may be for anyone but Vachss to conceive of, even worse. Considering that Vachss views writing as an adjunct to his real profession, that of being an attorney whose practice deals only with young people and children, the most distressing aspect of his writing is that it may not be fiction at all, but rather, hideous case studies done up in narrative drag.

Choice of Evil, like the majority of novels in the Burke series, is set in the under-reported "ground Zero" of the festering urban sinkhole of the universe --a.k.a. New York City. Despite Disney and Mayor Giuliani's efforts, the horrors of the Vachss milieu do not politely disappear with cosmetic urban renewal: they've just moved further underground.

Burke -- no other name given him by his foster home -- is a by-default detective whose obsession with child abuse, rape and other beyond-the-criminal-pale atrocities compels him to take cases other detectives -- or most law-order professionals -- would shun. Burke is a classically traumatized hardcase who gives lie to the usual romanticized noir hero. He's more concerned about maintaining the anonymity of his bunker-like apartment than keeping appearances. He doesn't have a gum-smacking secretary. He doesn't even drink. Again, Burke is not about self-pity: he's about survival. His own, and, perhaps even more importantly in terms of Vachss' larger concerns, that of Burke's non-biological family. Among the members of Burke's chosen family are: a mute Mongolian strong-arm named Max; Michelle, a deeply empathetic transsexual; Mole, a brilliant techie who lives in a junkyard; and the Prof, a diminutive black schemer who speaks mainly in rhyme. While some have accused these characters of being cartoonish, it's missed that, by giving his characters only one name, Vachss underscores a basic premise: blood relations often have little to do with "real" family.

Choice of Evil begins with Burke's girlfriend being murdered in a drive-by killing at a gay-rights rally. It seems like an extreme -- if typical -- random homophobic action. Until someone starts dispatching the fag-bashers themselves -- somebody who calls himself "Homo Erectus" (we kid you not).

Burke is hired by a backroom cabal of extremist gays of both genders. They want Burke to find Homo Erectus and make certain he is whisked into safety. Hopefully after he finishes polishing off a few more fag-bashers. Burke takes the case mainly as an opportunity to exact revenge for his lover's murder. Within 30 pages, the reader is confronted by a common Vachss hard-ass ethical conundrum: Okay, killing gays is wrong. As is vigilantism. But most fag-bashers get away with light sentences, if they're caught at all. So what's the problem with there being a guy who's doing little more than some well-focused street-cleaning? Strong arguments are made for both sides. But onward.

Homo Erectus' modus operandi is nerve-wrackingly similar to that of one of the most frightening characters in Vachss' already nightmarish canon: Wesley. Wesley was an ice-blooded, remorseless triggerman. The ultimate killing machine. Burke grew up with Wesley, and idolized him as a child, but unlike Wesley, he somehow developed a few functional human attributes. But in a prior novel, while killing the entire graduating class of a New England prep school, Wesley died. Or did he?

Because now, it seems, he's back. Perhaps in the form of Homo Erectus, perhaps as an unknown cyber-villain. And maybe as a ghost.

A typically labyrinthine Vachss plot ensues. Burke becomes homeless. The cops finger Burke as Homo Erectus. A twisted S&M relationship with a possible female ally gets even more twisted. As always, the supporting cast of characters is like some graphic comic drawn by Frank Miller while suffering some hallucinogenic bi-polar incident. There's Xyla, Gen-X geek programmer extraordinaire; sexed-up investigative assistance from Strega, a Queens-based ex-mobster wife with a voodoo gloss and a few memorable others whose mention would give away a doozy of a plot. I will let go the fact that there's a new wrinkle to Vachss and Burke's ongoing struggle. Something the other books contained nary a drop of: hope.

I opened Choice of Evil with a certain amount of trepidation: Vachss' last few Burke books were not, I thought, up to par. The intricate plots and true-to-the-darkest-life characters were being pushed aside somewhat in favor of long sequences where I felt that Vachss was, for lack of a better word, preaching. There was also, I sensed, a bit of weariness, which was understandable, considering what the author must encounter on a day-by-day basis.

In Choice of Evil, the author is seriously back and running on all six cylinders, turbocharged, using every literary implement in the house, co-opting cyber and S & M culture, elements of supernatural fiction, pulp and literary structural trickery and more to bring his dark universe to light.

Although renowned for his minimalist style -- entire "chapters" are often not more than a paragraph long -- Vachss here proves to be a stylistic and cultural omnivore. Words, for this author, are weapons, and he does not discriminate against any particular bit of ordnance. There's also sly humor beneath the gritty veneer -- witness this play on Thomas Harris-style cat-and-mouse between a hyper-intelligent nemesis and Burke:

"Ah. You surprise me. I would not have thought --"

"I did a lot of reading in prison," I told him.

"Which apparently included a great deal of pop psychology," he said dryly.

Never known for his tolerance for weaker or ethically confused characters, Vachss shows a new maturity in this book. There are very touching thumbnails of a cop trapped by his own testosterone and a seeming fatale revealed as a pitiable victim of a subtly insidious form of evil. He even manages not to go orbital about how awful cats are (recent Vachss anti-feline rants have verged on the obsessional, along with other pet peeves [sic] such as a violent aversion to non R& B music. Because of his chosen material, Vachss is forced into making his first-person alter-ego both potentially nuts and relatively sanguine about life's niggling details. It's a hell of a high-wire act, and the author barely breaks a sweat here). A proven master of unrelenting darkness, Vachss seems to have found a use for gray.

Vachss has also forged an entirely new sort of human monstrosity, a book-long, mostly epistemological creation cobbled together from police reports, the speculation of victims and Burke's employers, postings on the Internet and, finally, an extended discussion between Burke and an encoded 'net-based diary written by this monstrous character. It's an understated, chilling performance. Hannibal Lecter comes off as an amiable cartoon character next to this human demon. And, even in hardback, the book's dénouement is so left-field disturbo, it's easily worth the price of admission.

There are flaws. The death of Burke's lover seems a somewhat distant event; we never quite sense his grief. Here and there, his Internet lingo may make the geek-reader mutter about not being cutting-edge. And sometimes Vachss' terseness becomes too terse, leaving the uninitiated reader a bit at sea.

But what the author truly accomplishes here is making an exciting, deft and incisive argument against his detractors.

We live in times of cheapjack nihilism and an unearned postmodern cynicism; a sort of media-glut, empathetic exhaustion. After the Menendez brothers, O.J., or, for that matter, the Columbine slaughter, Burke, and by extension, Vachss' raison d'être, threaten to appear anachronistic. Burke evokes, to some extent, a tarnished hero from a simpler, more idealistic time (about seven or so years ago, maybe). Vachss' roughly behaviorist worldview -- that we are not formed by complex bio chemical structures (where would HMOs and Prozac be without this construct?) -- is seen as simplistic by many critics of his work.

And, from a certain POV, it is. Vachss keeps carping simplistically about terrible homes, horrific parents, insane laws (in New York City, selling a small amount of cocaine is a more severely punished crime than multiple rape). It's imaginable that, like Brett Easton Ellis, he could have a psycho character go to the laundry and complain about blood in his designer shirts a la American Psycho, but, unlike Ellis, it would be equally important to find out why he would do so.

What served to create this monster?

We don't know why Hannibal Lecter is the way he is: he's just the boogeyman. Knowing the details of what formed him, seeing in him a sense of melancholy at his fall from psychological grace: all that would be tiring, would make the reader perhaps see too much of him or herself in the work. Vagueness in characterization is hip, moral relativism is even hipper.

Vachss chooses not to be attuned to the vogue of vagueness. Evil exists, he says. It's a real thing. And it's a preference, a conscious choice. In light of liberal and conservative chit-chat about choice and "empowerment," if you follow that stuff, what Vachss says is entirely logical: If we can pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and choose life, then why can't we also choose its polar opposite and become total, unredeemable shitheads?

So yes, Vachss' arguments about evil are simplistic, but in the same way a drug counselor's arguments about heroin abuse might be to an addict: If you keep doing this, you will die.

Our best mystery writers, whether they say it or not, are in the business of locating, defining and vanquishing evil, no matter what they may actually call it.

Ellroy sees it as some weird energy causing Los Angeles to seethe from generation to generation with some sort of ambient X-factor, which causes infinite corruption. Joe Lansdale finds it in the vast emptiness of the Texas desert. James Lee Burke finds it in the combination of a loss of spiritual values and the collision of cultures in New Orleans.

Vachss' work is not site or philosophy-specific. It cuts to the chase: evil lives, potentially, in everyone's heart. His real mission -- done up as an extremely satisfying "entertainment" in Choice of Evil -- is to implicate the reader. To not only investigate the atrocities on display in his work, but to reflect on our own lives, and see just what we have chosen. | July 1999

Ian Grey's work has been published in Time Out, Icon, Fangoria and many other periodicals. 1998 saw the publication of his book, Sex, Stupidity and Greed: Inside the American Movie Industry (JunoBooks). He is currently at work on an epic novel dealing with sex, pop music, family and mass murder, based on two lines from a mediocre Depeche Mode song. Mr. Grey likes to think that he will be among the very first to do this.