Monday, September 7, 2009

Lighting the fuse on A Bomb Built in Hell

I've just finished reading the bookends of one of my favorite series, the "Burke" novels by Andrew Vachss. After 18 books in 23 years, he completed it with the release of Another Life in 2008. Meanwhile, his website has the free PDF of his first, unpublished novel, a sort of prelude to the Burke series titled, A Bomb Built in Hell.

To call Bomb "disturbing" is an understatement. Written in 1973, it deals with Wesley, a supporting character in the Burke series, one who's so scary even mentioning his name terrifies people. He's an amoral hit man who, weary of his life, decides to take out the next generation of those he blames for making his life what it is. But his judgment, needless to say, is a bit twisted.

What skews it, as in all Vachss' novels, is Wesley's tormented childhood at the hands of the government. Abandoned at age four, he's raised by the state and becomes a petty teen criminal. In the first few pages he refers to reform institutions as "upstate sodomy schools," and thinks no more of going to jail than a normal person would going to Wal-Mart. He's desensitized, an empty vessel waiting to be filled.

His prison mentor Carmine does just that, teaching him the ropes and preparing him for life outside as a hit man. Upon his release, Wesley avenges Carmine on the mobsters who let him rot in prison. When that's accomplished, he decides to seek a more personal revenge, not against individuals but against an entire class of people. I won't give it away here, but what Vachss wrote about in 1973 came to pass in an almost identical event in 1999.

In the author's notes on his website, Vachss says publishers repeatedly told him, "the book was also 'too' hard-boiled, 'too' extreme, 'too' spare and violent. I heard endlessly about how an anti-hero was acceptable, but Wesley was just 'too' much."

And maybe, dare I say it, they were right about that last bit. Burke narrates his own stories; while the other characters see only his carefully-chosen front, we are privy to his thoughts, feelings and motives. Bomb is written in third person, so that the reader sees Wesley the same way the other characters do. There's very little sympathy for him, especially as he closes in on his greatest hit at the climax. In fact, if Bomb were written and published today, the outcry would probably be massive; Vachss might even disappear at the hands of Homeland Security for appearing to advocate (and describing in detail how to accomplish) such extreme acts.

But despite being a period piece in a sense, "Bomb" still resonates with the thing that makes all Vachss' books so powerful: the sense that there's reality in the details, no matter how outlandish the characters or plot might seem. Vachss has spent his life in the trenches, and if he says this is how something should be done, I wouldn't doubt him.

I'm not exactly "recommending" this book to teen boys; it's certainly not written for a YA audience and as I said, it could be misconstrued as advocating what it depicts, although that's truly not the case. But it does show how the juvenile justice "system" often does far more damage to those it's supposed to help. And I'm not saying Bomb is a "scared straight" work, either. I guess what I got from it, and what I hope teen boys would, is the sense of how those deprived of family will always seek one out. It happens in gangs all the time. But maybe here, writ large and in a sense absurd, readers can see the process in such sharp relief they'll be motivated, somehow, to break the chain. Before that same process produces a Wesley for real.

Download A Bomb Built in Hell for free here.

Read Andrew Vachss autobiographical essay here.

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