Tom Jennings salutes the eyepatched crusader’s superhero child abuse revengers on their final outing.
Trojan Horse Noir. Book review – Tom Jennings
This novel  closes contemporary crime fiction’s most remarkable series, in which Vachss’ New York protagonist Burke – no ‘Christian’ name and strictly Old Testament ethics – roots out perpetrators of sexual predation, exploitation and violence thanks to unrivalled understanding, borne of bitter personal experience, of their origins and ramifications. With elective outlaw kin – early jailyard mentor, Black street philosopher and strategic genius the Prof, Chinese wise-woman restauranteur Mama, transsexual chameleon Michelle, mute Mongolian martial artist Max the Silent, and Jewish racist-hating technowizard Mole – he runs brutally sophisticated long-cons parting abusers from their money and enacting revenge with extreme prejudice on behalf of victims. Early targets gravitated towards gutter lowlifes, red-lights and raincoats; gradually extending upwards through middle-class pimps and institutional panderers to corporate racketeers, ruling-class perverts and international nonce networks. Throughout, the tales turn truly transcendental via family parallels implacably and impeccably drawn with other vicious circles of misery that individual and societal failures of empathy foster.
Now, when Another Life’s minor Saudi royal schools his son in misogynistic sadism before the toddler goes missing, believed prey to a paedophile ring, top government spooks seek our (anti-)hero’s help. He wouldn’t normally touch with a bargepole anything tainted by the State, but the carrot is exemplary medical treatment for the Prof (mortally wounded in the previous instalment, Terminal). Perilous excavations of the child-slavery circuits which Burke is legendary for nailing yield another hardest-boiled yarn and a characteristically ambiguous upshot combining hope with nihilistic realism regarding the case’s wider significance. Added poignancy comes from Burke’s yearning to help his clan’s younger members thrive – not underground like himself, requiring superhuman resilience to survive – yet, having been protected from such hardship, somehow weaning them with the wisdom to endure the cold world. As always, readers are left with pressing questions which, in principle, can be answered neither in Burke’s bleak tongue nor via the specious platitudes of respectable political or philosophical discourse .
Vachss’ characters are all loosely based on people met professionally (except with the evil villainy usually toned down) – including tracking sexually-transmitted disease, relief work in Biafra, labour organising and running a detention centre for violent juveniles, but mainly combining crusading novelist and attorney exclusively representing children and youth. His campaigns have resulted in landmark legal upheavals – Thailand clamping down on child sex-tourism; American loopholes for parental abusers plugged – though he’s crystal clear on the inadequacies of public and privatised justice and welfare. And whereas the author negotiates official nonsense nourished by hard-won counter-knowledge of its baleful logics, Burke builds his own lifeworld and pragmatic truths with no recourse to ‘civilised’ resources – the novels themselves being ‘trojan horses’ detailing real-world events and patterns long before mainstream media acknowledgement. An unflinching focus on extremes that others avoid surely risks problematically oversimplistic certainties, but this magnificent 18-strong series – beginning with Flood (1985) – also quite uniquely specifies the wilful complacent blindness of modern society in nurturing and perpetuating domination and oppression .
1. Another Life is published by Vintage (2009).
2. still less alternative philosophies of ‘freedom’ – such as that of Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey, whose famous ‘temporary autonomous zones’ double more notoriously as ideological props for the sexual sociopathy of NAMBLA (the North-American Man-Boy Love Association); see Robert Helms, ‘Paedophilia and American Anarchism’ (available at libcom.org/library).
3. and, as a final bonus, Another Life even celebrates anarchism over fascism, communism or liberal ‘democracy’, courtesy of Burke’s reminiscences of an old IWW cellmate (pp.120-3).
Review first published in [/i]Freedom, Vol. 70, No. 19, October 2009.
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