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.