Andrew Vachss,
Two Trains Running
(Pantheon, 2005)

Andrew Vachss has always been an important novelist, and with Two Trains Running he becomes a major one. The advance word on this new stand-alone novel was that it was Vachss' take on Red Harvest, reimagining Hammett's concept of a small American city torn between several corrupt forces, with the protagonist acting as the fuse that sets the events in violent motion. The comparison is valid, but only a small part of the story.

While Hammett's novel was a brilliant miniature of corruption in 1920s America, Vachss uses a far larger canvas and a wider palette of colors. His true subject is nothing less than how America came to be what it is today as a result of what happened in the pivotal year of 1959, when his story takes place. As rival gangland factions gather and clash over the future of Locke City, so do other larger, more entrenched and no less corrupt forces clash over the future of the country itself. In the center stands the protagonist, Walker Dett ("a debt walking," as Vachss calls him in recent interviews). Dett functions as a passenger on both "trains," the express running on the Locke City plotline, and the slower but more powerful engine bearing the country itself to a future formed as we watch.

While Vachss' portrait is of far more than the city in which the tale is set, so too is his subject far more than crime. He delves deeply into the still unresolved problem of race relations, revealing the roots of black anger and burgeoning black pride. He examines the genesis of gang violence and the motivations that draw the young and rootless into that particular hell. And he takes a hard look at government intrusion into all aspects of society, and how the investigation of corruption can lead to the corruption of the investigator. That such themes are as contemporary as the iPod is all too obvious, but Vachss' treatment resonates not only strongly but eerily, especially in light of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. The death is a significant triggering event in Two Trains Running, and today's news shows a photo of Till's casket being transported to where his remains will finally receive a full autopsy, after 50 years.

What makes Vachss's story even more journalistic is its style. The book is constructed of a series of scenes presented chronologically with the date and time at the start of each, and is the first novel Vachss has written in third person. As a result, his range is much freer. But whereas the third-person limited point of view usually allows the writer to enter the minds of the characters, Vachss limits himself further. Never does he reveal the thoughts of any character, even his protagonist. He merely reports. We hear the characters' words and see what they do, but we never know what they're thinking. It is to Vachss's credit that, for the most part, we know nonetheless, and when we don't, it's because Vachss doesn't want us to.

With such a seemingly cold and clinical way of relating events, it's surprising how much warmth and compassion come through in the human story. The main plotline belongs to Walker Dett, a mysterious gun for hire who has been employed by Royal Beaumont, the wheelchair-bound crime lord of Locke City, in order to help him prevent several rivals from taking control of the town. Dett is a loner and a strange duck (the scenes of him eating alone in his hotel room will remain in your memory long after more dramatic ones have faded). He becomes emotionally involved with a local waitress, Tussy Chambers, drawn to her relative purity, and the relationship holds promise and redemption for Dett once his unspoken debt is paid.

The emotional core of the book, however, seems to be the incestuous relationship between Royal Beaumont and his sister Cynthia. In Vachss' continuing series of novels about Burke, a strong theme is that true families have nothing to do with blood relationships. The theme here is that true love has nothing to do with them, either; it's the heart that dictates passion. The physically crippled Beaumont is as close as we come to a Burke-like character, and his dialogue often brings to mind that of the hard-as-nails yet strangely tender Burke.

The book is filled with other well-drawn characters rich in moral ambiguity: Carl, a gay neo-Nazi absolutely devoted to his twisted cause; Rufus, the street-smart hotel bellhop who puts together and helps to arm a secret black unity organization; Mickey Shalare, an Irishman seeking to establish power in Locke City, primarily to help Jack Kennedy become president; Jimmy Proctor, a reporter willing to do more than lie in order to dig out the truth, and many more.

Vachss weaves all their stories together seamlessly, and even engages in some fascinating speculation in the process. One example is the truth behind Al Capone's death from syphilis. Vachss mixes the "Tuskegee Experiment," the FBI's need for Capone's humiliation and Capone's jailhouse activities to come up with a chilling conclusion. Even Dett's ultimate mission proves to be part of Vachss' speculative investigation into the roots of contemporary America.

Two Trains Running works brilliantly on all of its many levels, and is one of those books that repays rereading. It's a new American classic -- an intriguing story well-told, and a deeper rumination on how we got to where we are today.

You can read excerpts from the novel, hear Vachss interviewed by writer Joe R. Lansdale, and learn more about the background of the book at this website.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 11 June 2005

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