Andrew Vachss,
Only Child
(Knopf, 2002)

Andrew Vachss's series of novels about Burke, a hardened yet compassionate man who lives outside the law, has been one of the masterpieces, not just of noir fiction, but of all fiction in the past two decades. Since 1985's Flood, Burke has been growing and changing as a character, and Vachss has been doing the same as a writer, though his goal has been constant: to expose readers to the reality of young people who have been victimized, and to make those readers angry enough to do something about it. It's a goal that Vachss pursues in real life as well, in his work as a lawyer exclusively representing children and youth.

The Burke novels, however, never become polemics. They're highly entertaining and involving fiction, intensely character-driven to the point where what happens in the plot isn't nearly as interesting as how it's happening, and how Burke responds to it emotionally (the novels are all first-person, told from Burke's point of view). The reader sees through his eyes, yet Burke seldom shares his innermost feelings. Those are subtly suggested by his actions and by the words of those with whom he comes in contact.

In Only Child, Burke, deserted by his biological mother at birth, is once more in the bosom of his true family, back in New York City after spending several years in the Pacific Northwest, to which he disappeared after his supposed death. It's a reunion made in some dark heaven, with Mama, Max the Silent, the Prof, Clarence, the Mole, Michelle and Burke all working together to find the people responsible for the brutal murder of a 16-year-old girl, the mixed-race daughter of a Mafia higher-up. The film industry also comes under fire, and Burke and his crew's impersonation of a film casting crew provides some sardonic humor to leaven the grim proceedings.

The story's a gem, tough, tight and terse. As always, it's heavily dependent on the kind of icy dialogue Vachss writes better than anyone else, but though a chill wind blows, Vachss relieves it with the warmth of the unconditional love Burke's family shares with each other, and the glimpses we get of Burke's true humanity. When one of his colleagues tells Burke that he feels far more than he lets on, he replies, "That's me, all right, Cyn. A knight in shining armor," to which she pointedly responds, "Oh, you've got plenty of armor, all right." Burke, always an interesting character, becomes most fascinating when we're allowed a look behind that wall of emotional armor. His brief, supportive relationship with a young boy deserted by his father is particularly revealing. These moments don't occur often, but when they do, they make the hard trek through the gritty landscapes well worthwhile.

In Only Child, however, we're seldom in those blasted urban heaths that Vachss is so skilled at depicting. The malls and tract homes of suburbia are Burke's stomping grounds here, and prove to be as spiritually empty as the cities. New technology spawns new kinds of evil, more subtle but no less dangerous to the souls of the young, and Vachss shines his bright light on them, illuminating the darkness boldly and unflinchingly. The world of fiction is fortunate in having a character like Burke, and the world in general is fortunate in having a man like Vachss. Highly recommended.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 21 September 2002

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