Author: Andrew Vachss

2010, Pantheon

Filed under: Mystery, Thrillers

This is going to sting a bit. I like Andrew Vachss a lot, and I’ve been reading his novels for 15 years. This is by far the worst book of his that I’ve ever read.

My favorite Vachss novels star Burke, a private eye with a group of friends who are ridiculous characters but great fun. For instance, there’s a silent assassin with whom Burke talks in pidgin sign language, and there’s a genius hacker who lives in a junkyard cave with a transsexual hooker and the child they adopted together. Every Burke novel plays out the same (gratifying) way: Burke and his band of merry misfits hunt down and punish child molesters and rapists.

For the past 40 years, Vachss has been an attorney specializing in helping children who’ve been abused. He wears an eyepatch. He’s a badass. He’s always used (I’m guessing) his experiences with scumbags, but the engine of his best work has always been his own personal fury and his outrage that things—and people—as dark as he’s seen are allowed to exist in the world. Burke is righteous and unstoppable, and unabashed wish fulfillment, written by a man who deserves some fulfilled wishes.

The Weight, on the other hand, is a half-plotted pamphlet about jail. It stars Timmy “Sugar” Caine, a bear-sized career criminal. He does a job with a crew of three, and when he gets home, he finds that he’s been falsely accused of rape by a woman who picked out his mug shot. The rape happened while Sugar was busy drilling his way into a jewelry store—he can’t provide an alibi without giving up his crew, so he chooses to take the jail time, or “the weight.”

When Sugar gets out, five years later, the “planner” of the jewelry heist tells him he should go down to Florida and find another guy from the job, Jessop, to make sure Jessop won’t for some reason suddenly tell the cops everything about this crime that went cold years ago. What’s more: the statute of limitations is almost up, and when that happens, it won’t matter what Jessop says.

In Vachss’s best work, the main character is filled with a burning unquenchable fire, desperate to get himself some well-deserved justice. In The Weight, Sugar ambles around, unclear on why he’s tracking down Jessop, or even what he’s supposed to do when he finds him. (To be fair, there’s no good answer to either question.)

While he meanders from here to there, Sugar ruminates endlessly on jail. The gangs inside, the philosophy, how to survive (if you’re a frightening, enormous man who works out constantly), on and on and on. It goes like this:

That’s the first thing that hit you. I hadn’t been away that long, but now it seemed like nobody cared about going for the Wall anymore. The guys with real juice, they could get anything they wanted right there. They didn’t care about soft money. Or even pistols. what they really wanted was cell phones.

That kind of half-insidery jail talk takes up about 50% of the book. When it’s not happening, The Weight reveals that Vachss just isn’t a very good writer. For instance:

They had to know it was a-thousand-to-one against them getting me to confess. And I knew it was even worse odds against me convincing them they’d grabbed the wrong guy.

A weak hand, sure. Who hits a gutshot straight-flush draw? But I wasn’t drawing dead, not yet.

Vachss has never been afraid to drop a cliche, but before he’s had his inventiveness and spirit to support mediocre prose. Without weird, lovable characters, or a hellacious bad guy to hunt, Vachss doesn’t have a whole lot more to offer.

As for the plot, it continues to drag. Sugar gets half a motive after 150 pages, but he never exactly faces much trouble. His biggest problem is that he’s been placed on the sex offender registry, but Vachss never turns up the gas. Everybody, in prison and outside it, knows Sugar didn’t actually rape the woman, so he’s got none of the stigma of a rapist; he never has to clear his name. And so that last possible motivation—one that’s squarely in Vachss’s wheelhouse—delivers all the drama of picking up the wrong dry cleaning. Sugar kind of wants to fix it, but it can wait until tomorrow if there’s a ball game on.

All in all, an unfortunate, disappointing novel. If you’ve already read this, don’t give up on Vachss, and if you’ve never read him, don’t start here.

Similar books: The Burke Series, by Andrew Vachss; and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and other Stieg Larsson books. If you like Larsson’s passion, read (earlier) Vachss.