The latest novel by Andrew Vachss, an attorney who represents children and youths exclusively, attains the precarious balance between entertainment and advocacy that has somewhat escaped the most recent entries in his "Burke" series. It focuses on the new lost generation, clawing its way to dubious validity by way of ethically denuded cinema and the concurrent craze for "reality" television, which, of course, has nothing to do with reality. By staying hip to the worldview of a generation raised on pomo hooey, Vachss has written a barnburning deconstruction of what has largely become an irrelevant genre--the hard-boiled detective novel--as well as a book that handily transcends it.
Burke, a career criminal with a childhood history of savage abuse, returns from an ill-advised stay in Portland, Ore., to New York City. He reunites with his "family of choice"--among them, a mute Asian enforcer, a Bronx junkyard scientist, and an ex-hooker transsexual. Burke then does the unexpected in Only Child--he takes on an actual investigation.
Neo-Mean Streets mobster Giovanni and his lover, a Hispanic gunman named Felix, hire Burke to find Giovanni's daughter's murderer. Burke's quest leads him to underground video distributors, dogfight promoters, Internet S-M sex workers, and Hollywood's favored target market, movie-crazed mall teens. Burke hears tell of a filmmaker, the Vision, whose ambition it is to create an ultimate cinema of reality with lethal side effects; it's now up to Burke to minimize any further collateral damage of the Vision's art.
Vachss obviously has little patience for gratuitous subtlety. Terse paragraphs are pressed into service as entire chapters, creating a blistering forward momentum. He can also be pretty droll: The Vision argues the Zapruder film's artistic merits, while Burke gets on the filmmaker's good side by describing the auteur's work as "Blair Witch meets Fight Club."
Typical of his maximum economy approach, Vachss summarizes his profound ambivalence about the Dream Machine and Burke's love/hate relationship with post-Sept. 11 New York in two sentences: "Hollywood's got one part right--the dirty, scheming, heartless bitch never does sleep.
As Richard Price once said of Hubert Selby, Vachss has the ability to stun the reader into empathy. A frightened boy besmirched by gangster films names his dog the Brains of the Outfit. A cute bit, that--until we learn it's an anagram for an endearment the boy can't afford to say out loud. Seemingly apropos of nothing, Giovanni bares his only fear--disappointing his beloved uncle by dint of his queerness. In Vachss' view, and never better articulated than in Only Child, the past is always present in current behavior, the aching humane detail is never where you expect it, and evil--the real kind, not the cynical word-grab of opportunistic politicians--is always a choice.