Andrew Vachss,
Dead & Gone
(Knopf, 2000)

Andrew Vachss' novels about the character known only as Burke are as tough and painful -- and as deeply resonant and powerful -- as any books ever written. Dead & Gone, a new Burke novel, takes the main character -- and the reader -- to new depths of pain, compassion and vengeance.

From the beginning, you know this one is going to be very different. Burke, who lives in the gray frontier between law and lawlessness, has confronted the worst of human monsters in his previous books, people who prey upon children, who commit the unforgivable crime of murdering innocence. Burke's crusade to obliterate such creatures (which mirrors that of attorney/children's right advocate Vachss) has earned him the enmity of a great many people, and one of them has planned Burke's death. The plot nearly succeeds, and by the end of the first dozen pages, one of Burke's closest friends lies dead, and Burke himself is nearly killed, losing the sight in one eye.

His goal now is revenge, not only for himself, but for the loss of the one living creature closest to him. In effect, Burke becomes "dead and gone," vanishing even beneath the radar of the underground's whisper-stream, in order to track down those responsible. The motives for the attack, however, turn out to be more than just a desire for Burke's death, which he learns with the assistance of Gem, a young Cambodian woman who becomes one of Burke's aides and more, and Burke's old friend Lune, who has developed a system of drawing order and patterns from seeming chaos.

The novel is filled with rich and enigmatic characters, dark and gritty settings, and terse, ice-cold prose. What sets it apart from the other books, however, is the change that occurs in Burke, not just physically, but psychologically. There is a spiritual death and rebirth here, a learning process with lessons so hard that I doubt if anyone with less rigor than Burke could survive them. But survive them he does, and comes out on the other side changed, and for the better. We are in the presence of a different Burke by the book's end, no less intense, no less dedicated to his goals, no less devoted to his chosen family, but a Burke who has learned other ways of dealing with his enemies and with his fears, and perhaps a Burke who is, at long last, loved, and who has learned to accept and give love in return.

The Burke saga is no literary franchise, but a series written with depth and passion. Unlike most series characters, Burke grows, develops and changes, and Vachss has chronicled these changes with dark brilliance. Dead & Gone is a defining chapter and an enlightening moment of transition in the long, hard story of Burke. At the same time, it is a stark, compassionate and strangely different novel by one of the most original and ferocious voices in American fiction. I cannot recommend it too highly.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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