Thursday, August 27, 2009


You may recall that after my review of The Sword-Edged Blonde, a conversation with a reader led me to realize I really haven't read much noir or crime fiction after Chandler and Hammett. I solicited advice about good stuff to read to get a feel for the genre more recently, with the results that I have read Robert Parker's Spenser novel Ceremony and just finished Andrew Vachss's novel Flood as well.

Vachss's protagonist, known only as Burke, is a completely different animal than Parker's Spenser. Where Parker is confident and somewhat brash, Burke is the most paranoid character I have ever read about, including the works of Philip K. Dick. There are hints that his paranoia has some basis in his experiences, but the reader is never given details of those experiences (at least in this novel). Whatever the rationale for his fears, Burke is constantly concerned that someone is going to come after him and takes highly unusual precautions to prevent it. For instance, he has trained the guard dog for his office to not eat until given a specific command in order that a burglar or assailant cannot feed her drugged food. And the command to eat is counter-intuitive, so that said burglar more than likely cannot stumble across the exact word—no one expects a dog to eat when you to tell it "speak." Burke goes into tremendous detail to describe how he gets around not only being tapped on the phone but also keep from paying for phone service; the hook-up of bouncers and receivers across New York City to serve his purposes reads like a description of a circuit diagram and accentuates his efforts to thwart pursuers that are never seen in the course of Flood.

Those moments also reflect Burke's tremendous attention to detail which extends to every facet of his life, a life the majority of which is spent working for his clients or protecting himself from unknown stalkers. The passages where Burke pours over the various racing forums in order to pick his horses could be tedious, but Vachss turns them somehow fascinating in the near continuous ramble that is Burke's narration. When Burke travels through New York City, it often feels like the description of moving through a labyrinth, but again, his narration is somehow compelling.

Readers generally know very little about the protagonist's past in noir and detective fiction: the novel is set in the eternal present and usually the narrator has no interest in reliving past successes or failures. Burke feels even more reticent, perhaps because of the supporting characters he has gathered around himself. They practically demand explanation: Max the Silent, the deaf and mute brother whose very presence terrifies gang members into complete obeisance; the Mole, a stunted mechanical and electronic genius so twisted by his own past that he may be even more paranoid than Burke; and the Prof (short for Prophet, not Professor), a street-smart wise-cracking source of information for Burke who also somehow holds some sort of power over street denizens. But Burke is not forthcoming, perhaps because telling their stories would end up revealing more about himself to complete strangers—the readers—than he is comfortable doing.

And so the star of the novel, really, is its author, Vachss. Despite the many potential barriers between the reader and the narrator, it is difficult to put the book down for any length of time. Perhaps it is because of a desire to see how someone so apparently socially stunted as Burke can get along on a day to day basis, or a sort of unspoken demand to know more about this crazy cast of charcters. But for me, part of the allure is just to feel Vachss's power over words and the plot, enjoying the little nuggets from Vachss which provide a distinct reality to the madness of Burke's world. For instance, Burke has a quirk of using language that implies that objects perform actions on their own which is repeated throughout his narration, so that instead of saying "I turned the car around the corner" he says something like "The car turned the corner". This type of phrasing happens over and over and hints at tiny details about his personality—that perhaps part of Burke's fear is a sort of belief that objects hold some kind of power. Burke also uses short declarative sentences when he writes and when he talks, giving the novel a sort of sing-song feel as it moves along. The result is a fully realized and believable Burke, an expression of Vachss's craft and skill.

Into this well-written world comes Flood, a potential client for Burke, looking for a man who has hurt her in the past. Burke, while attracted to Flood, initially turns down her job offer because he senses that no good can come from finding the man and fears that the result would put him in the spotlight—somewhere he decidedly does not want to be. But something about Flood makes Burke realize that she will potentially try to resolve the issues on her own, thus putting herself in danger, and so he begins his own independent pursuit. What follows is a diary of not only his investigation but the day-to-day workings of Burke in a culture he is ill-suited for, but in which he apparently succeeds often, given the friends beyond his immediate circle he can call upon to help him. Burke actually isn't a very good investigator, but what he does is doggedly follow each lead he gets until it completely peters out, showing patience and determination beyond most people. This is the generic framework of noir novels, a basic procedural gussied up to become something greater than the repetition of tired tropes and clich├ęs. And along the way, we get his wry observations about the way the world works and the people in that world, neither of which he thinks too highly. It becomes clear over the course of the novel that his peculiar friends and outlook are a coping mechanism for a man ill-suited to his surroundings, but he is also a man who has made a family for himself and has no desire to hurt them or leave them.

Flood is some good stuff. The paths that Burke follows lead into some very dark places, and there is irony that we rely on a protagonist so completely flawed to get us back into the light. But Vachss's mastery of the craft does not really permit questioning until the book is set down and the reader can reflect on what a strange place he has just visited. I would argue that, like some of the very best speculative fiction, Vachss rises above all the dross that comes from writing in a genre and attains a level beyond. It is compelling and frightening and fascinating to travel along with Burke. And I have to recommend taking at least one ride through the tough city with him.

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