Sunday, February 15, 2009

Another Life, by Andrew Vachss

I've been a Vachss fan since he started the series featuring Burke, starting with Flood, in what? 1985? Burke is a bad-ass, a grad of the Westlake/Stark Parker School for Anti-Heroes. Burke kicks ass and doesn't care about the names, lives down in the zero among the junkyard dogs on the meanest of mean streets. 

The early books were raw, brutal, and blew as hard and hot as the winds in a forest fire. I was particularly drawn to Burke's oddball family, none related by blood, but brothers and sisters nonetheless. Max the Silent, the Tibetan martial artist; the Prof, a rhyming ex-con who mentored Burke in prison; Wesley, the assassin; Mama; the Chinese restaurant owner; the Mole, Michelle ... and the generation of dogs and children who were added. 

Burke's song was pretty much a one-note tune, but he sang it well and it needed to be heard: Burke, like Vacchss, has no use for child molesters in any form, and these are invariably given quick and sometimes most painful, death-sentences, and good riddance. 

Of course, the sound of a soap box being dragged up can drown out your story, but Vachss is a good enough writer that you'd put up with it because the action could carry it. (Though he still has people nodding their heads and shrugging their shoulders ...)

There are now eighteen of these books featuring Burke, and the latest, Another Life, is supposed to be the final one. If you are a fan, there is no question that you have to read it. If, however, you aren't already hooked on the series, this isn't the one I'd offer as an entree. Had it been the first one I read, I doubt I would have picked up another one. And that is sad. 

I don't usually give bad reviews of novels. I know what it takes to turn a ream of blank paper into a book, and I appreciate the effort. Better the world's worst artist than the world's best critic. In this case, I'm offering a qualified approval -- when you should read the book matters.

The main reason for my hedge is that there isn't a soapbox being dragged up in this one. No, there are a bunch of soapboxes, and they are already there when the tale begins. Every character who speaks more than two lines climbs up onto one, and the dialogs read not so much as conversations between people but long, sometimes tedious, speeches.  These are the same kind of expository lectures as might be given in a history or sociology class by an overzealous teaching assistant, speaking on the assumption that his students are mostly brain-dead and need to be spoon-fed or they will starve.

Nobody says anything but that they rant, at length, with a sauce made of equal parts bile and bitters. Such tirades are tiring, and Vachss is better than this. I think he was reaching for closure, but I don't think this was the way to go. 

His book of course, his choice. Better to reach and fail than not reach..

When Vachss offers a fight scene, or a shoot-out, or a visit to a compulsive book collector or S&M parlor, there is a flow. When he stops and offers us a lecture on the unreality of movies, the shortcomings of government, or the idiocy of sheep, which pretty much means everybody but Burke and his family and chosen few they know, you just want to skip over it and get on with the fucking story.

I understand this. I do it myself. It is part of the conceit of being a writer -- you want to tell people Important Stuff!

When Ellen Degeneres came out as a lesbian during the run of her comedy TV show, it was cleverly done and funny. But like a shiny new toy, that was all she wanted to play with, and gay jokes came fast and furious thereafter.  Ellen was convinced her show was canned because of an anti-gay bias by the network, and maybe that was so, but there is only one sin in comedy, and she was so wrapped up in being GAY that she committed it: She stopped being funny. I didn't tune in to get diatribes on the perils and joys of Lesbos, it was supposed to be a comedy. Had it been, I wouldn't have cared if she had been a trisexual alien sleeping with a family of donkeys.  

This is what it feels like Vachss has done. He wants this story to mean something, for us to understand that the real people down in the zero know how the world really works, but here, it is about a subtle as a sidekick to the face. 

Moreover, while it has its moments, and not to give it away, the plot has a hole big enough in it you can sail an oil tanker through it without touching either side, not to mention that it comes as no surprise to anyone who has read the series. The big reveal? Hard to not see it coming a mile away. 

I was disappointed. I think Anton Chekhov would have been, too. 

So yeah, if you are fan, you gotta read it. It's supposed to be Burke's swan song.  But if you want entertaining reads, go back to the beginning and start with Flood or Strega or Blue Belle, where Burke only preached enough to give you a break from the action, and not the other way around. Work your way through the series, and then you can read the last one. 

Vachss deserves a fair chance, and that's the way to give it to him. Don't start with this book. 


Formosa Neijia said...

You could have replaced his name with "Neal Stephenson" and it would be a good critique of everything he's done in recent years, too.

What's going on with book editing in recent years? As an editor myself, have we all been effectively fired or something?

Many of the books coming out these days desperately needed heavy editing and look like they got none.

Is it Dave Eggers syndrome?

I keep hearing about decreasing profit margins in the publishing industry but honestly a lot of what gets published these days is crap. (Minus good guys like Steve, of course.)

What's going on?

Worg said...

"You could have replaced his name with "Neal Stephenson" and it would be a good critique of everything he's done in recent years, too."

Ain't that the truth.

What happens when that which is most important to a writer is turgid drivel?

B. Smith said...

I liked it a bit more than you but as I said on Steven Barnes blog it's a good place to stop. Two Trains Running and The Getaway Man were so enjoyable and showed that Vachss still has it as a writer. The last few Burke books were a bit of a drag. I wish he would have kept him in the Pacific Northwest for another book but Burke is a city creature and eventually he had to go back.

Care to elaborate on the plot hole? There were a few things that bothered me about the book and maybe that particular thing is one of them.

Tiel Aisha Ansari said...

We pretty much felt that way about the last Burke book we read (and we've missed at least one in between). It's just as well that he's winding it up, he seems to have run out of story possibilities with that particular setup.

I disagree about Neal Stephenson, though. The _Baroque_Cycle_ was pretty heavy going, but I really liked _Anathem_.

Steve Perry said...

Plot hole. Okay.


Al-Qaeda is this super-efficient, sharp as an ocean liner full of razors, crack military organization that has a deep-cover cell in NYC. They can pull off an operation that doesn't leave forensic traces? They have access to cutting-edge medicine and technology, and they make the MIssion Impossible crew look like a bunch of drunken frat boys?

Since when? Where is there any evidence they could keep up with the IRA? Mossad? Even the pre-gutted

Somebody sneezes in a third-world country, half the media in the world screams Al-Qaeda! Al-Qaeda! and it's like how many people claim to have been at Woodstock. From all evidence, outside the caves in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda can't find its ass with both hands. The only reason they look good is because the CIA and FBI and US military keep tripping over their own feet.

Planes into buildings, anybody who ever read a Tom Clancy novel could manage that. Once. Because nobody really expected it. Any yahoo with a pulse can set up a roadside bomb or strap a vest of explosives on and get on a bus. We aren't talking Einstein here.

But we are talking *Burke* here, the ultimate Competent Man, who is working for a guy so shadowy and good that he has strings on Burke. A spook who doesn't need a passport to cross national borders? The invisible man who can reach out and touch anybody, anywhere? And he doesn't seem to know that Al-Qaeda has this level of expertise.

(That's because they don't. But if they did, how could he not know it?)

Al-Qaeda has become the modern boogeyman, hiding in every closet. I don't believe it for a second.

I heard your house got burgled.

Yeah. Al-Qaeda.

Somebody call somebody.

Given the plot of every Burke novel, if you didn't have a pretty good idea of who kidnapped the baby, and why, the minute there was no ransom demand? When somebody said, "Well, it doesn't seem to be about the money, and the Prince doesn't really have modo clout at home, there was only one possibility -- especially in a Burke novel ...

A woman gets shot in her driveway out in Hillsboro, nobody saw anything, what is the first question any cop is gonna ask?

I'll make it easy for you: She married? Got a boyfriend?

That this wasn't the first thing that crossed minds in this book? Please.

Steve Perry said...

I think there are two things going on here:

One, book houses don't want to kill the golden goose. If a writer hits the best-seller lists and everybody knows it, the desire to screw with what s/he produces goes way down. If Stephen King turns in his laundry list, it will become a NY Times Bestseller. He knows it, his publisher knows it, and the power in that relationship is his. I've been doing this a while, the thought goes, I sell a shitload of books doing it my way. Who are you to tell me anything? How many bestsellers have you written?

I thought *The Stand* was a good book, but about three hundred pages too long. Later, I heard King was going to go back and rework it and I thought, Hey, terrific. He'll cut the fat and it will run like a greyhound. What he did was add another three hundred pages, and -- for me -- it ran like an arthritic hippo. And I'm a King fan, I like his work.

Still made the bestseller lists.

This might not be conscious, but it's there. You want to be the editor who risks killing the house moneymaker's latest? Pissing him off? He can go elsewhere, the city is full of houses that would send a limo and roll out the red carpet for him.

Second thing is, as a writer grows in ability, the desire to make the stew richer and thicker also seems to grow. You believe you have the ability to say more, make it mean more, and you want to put it all out there. My most recent Matador novel was much thicker and more philosophical than the first few. I have more experience, more -- I fancy -- skill, and I want to impart it. It's easy to step over the line. A pinch of pepper makes the stew pop; two pinches might make it uneatable. You go from wanting to barbecue a nice burger to creating a French white sauce from scratch.

When things work, it can be outstanding. And if you reach and fail, that's better than not reaching.

But sometimes you get too much talk and not enough action. I think Musashi Flex suffers from this, and I wrote the sucker.

Writers are egotistical, it goes with the gig. If you weren't, how could you have the effrontery to believe you had something worth saying that people would pay money to read? I've been doing this for thirty years, I've written more than sixty novels, and I have this delusion that I know what I'm doing. But it's all subjective.

jks9199 said...

I agree that a lot of recent books could stand with substantial editorial trimming. But it's easy for me to say, since my occasional efforts to write fiction or short stories have been somewhere south of abysmal.

I think Steve's got a very valid point with the "if he's a best-seller, we'll publish it" idea. That's why some of these series go on and on and on... pushed long past their authors ability to make a good story in that universe.

I've got another idea why... It's tied to something I noticed writing term papers and professional reports... Years back, authors had to produce and copy manuscripts on paper. You had a tangible measure of the size of your novel. Same thing with writing a term paper; ten pages was ten pages. Today, many writers and students and professionals turn in their work digitally. Ten pages or ten thousand pages is one "file". Steve could email an entire novel to ten or twenty (maybe more) people... What would the postage have been for even ONE copy? Forget about the costs of the paper, etc. for the moment.

Yep; I'm blaming computers in part for the overweight novels out there!

Steve Perry said...

I dunno about the length thing, viz computers. Most writers who started before computer knew approximate page/word counts. Spellcheckers offer a word count at the touch of a button, though they aren't always dead-accurate, they aren't too far off. You are supposed to put a word count on your title page, and professionals all know what those numbers mean when it comes to how thick a book is.

Pacing requires a sense of how long and short things are. I don't think writers don't know, I think they are going for longer lengths. Big books sell for more. A novel you can take to the beach for a week has a different market than one you can read on the plane on your way to the beach.

Not to mention that all the common WP programs default to a page-style, and automatically number pages. Most writers I know use a header or a footer, going back to the old paper days when a dropped ms would be impossible to reassemble without pages numbered.

Tiel Aisha Ansari said...

I think jks was referring more to the physical effort & cost of postage of producing and distributing mss, more than that writers actually don't know how many words/pages they've written.

It's certainly true that novels in F&SF have gotten longer and longer-- what's more, it's hardly possible these days to find a new fantasy that isn't part of a series. (SF seems a little less overpowered by the serial bug.) I'm not sure I think that's a good thing.

jks9199 said...

We're tactile critters, still.

We can "get" the idea of how many words and how many pages and what those numbers refer to, but I don't think a lot of us really understand the size of something unless we really see it.

When I was a rookie, we did all our reports by hand, with pen on paper. You learned really quick to be concise and economical, because you didn't want to write tomes by hand. At least not unless it was really worth it.

But we changed to computers a few years back. Those with several years on still tend to write pretty concisely. Newer folks? They use a lot more words. (I'm not going down the road of which is better, because there are times when short is fine... and times when you need to write pages for something that lasted only a few seconds.) Even I find it easier to write longer reports now than when I had to physically see the page and wield the pen.

I don't think and don't mean to suggest that this is the only reason that books are getting longer... I think the reduction in calls for short stories played a role, too. I think that the publishing houses don't want to piss off the golded goose, to kind of twist Steve's idea around, too. I think that there's also more tolerance for longer books.

I'm not sure...I think it's proabaly a lot more complicated than anything here suggests..

Steve Perry said...

When computers first began to make serious inroads into word processing, besides the fact the dot matrix printers were so crappy, I had an editor tell me she could tell a computer-generated ms from a typewritten one easily because of how it flowed. The pacing was not the same.

My first computer used a daisywheel printer that looked just like an IBM typewriter's output, because that's what it essentially was.

Only slower ...

Nobody knew I was using a computer, at least nobody ever said they did, including this particular editor, who if she could tell, said otherwise.

A steak that's been carved by a tool steel or a stainless steel knife looks and tastes the same. Shoot somebody in the head with a cap and ball revolver or a 9 mm hardball they are just as dead.

I got dinged once because my "style" didn't fit a particular project. Buddy of mine wrote a book for them, and I helped him. The editors never had a clue.

Books have been evolving longer for decades. Officially, according to the SFWA for purposes of the Nebula Award, a novel is 40,000 words or more. I can't recall the last time I saw one that short.

When I was reading Travis McGee in the sixties, those novels and a lot of mysteries, science fiction, and westerns, ran 50-60K words. My first books were 60-65K words.

By the late 1980s, 75K was the average. By the turn of the century, 80K. Now? 85K is considered short, and most of my novels for the last few years have run 100K. Doorstop fantasies can run two or three times that.

Short stories are a different form, and while they have been fewer because the markets are also fewer, writing a book is different than just making a short story real long.

When I was a kid, most of the television shows, comedy, drama, westerns, soap operas, were half an hour long. Now, save for sitcoms, the shows are mostly an hour long.

Of course, this ways allows you to sell more commercials for a popular program.

Movies are shorter overall, but movies are about butts in chairs and turnover, so 105 minutes is a better profit length than two or three hours.

I would hesitate to nail the books-are-longer for one reason or another, but given how much they cost compared to what they used to cost, maybe people want more value for their money.

The bottom line is what drives it all.