Voices from the Darkness

New and Noteworthy

Like his protagonist, the subterranean sleuth Burke, author and attorney Andrew Vachss is a crusader. Vachss is haunted by society's dirty little secret -- sexual abuse of children. His books are strewn with the psychological casualties and human remains that lie in its wake. Under the guise of hard-boiled crime fiction and well beyond the almost obligatory hardened cynicism of his anti-hero lies a seething outrage that is downright palpable. It is this outrage -- not only toward the human predators that inextricably damage their innocent victims but also the antiquated laws and jaded legal system that all too often protect them -- that fuels Burke's forays from the glass high-rises, tony townhouses, and patrician brownstones of respectability to the darkest, nastiest crevices of Gotham's fetid netherworld.

Those who work professionally in this field know that perhaps the major issue of the decade has been the controversy over repressed/recovered memory and its inevitable backlash movement whose cries of "witch hunts" and "false allegations" have drawn headlines nationwide. In his new book, aptly titled False Allegations (Knopf, $23 hard), Vachss tackles the issue head-on and in Burke's search for "the truth" the reader is given an all-too-real education about the harrowing world of child abuse in its many forms -- physical and emotional. It's certainly interesting to see how Vachss covers the bases as his plot methodically unfolds.

Burke is hired by a mysterious lawyer to investigate whether a woman's allegations of childhood abuse are, in fact, truthful. The action may slow for some readers when the trail leads Burke to a cutting edge research institute in Texas which is based on the Civitas Child Trauma programs run by the real-life Dr. Bruce Perry at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Others will no doubt find the neurophysiological information imparted there to be utterly fascinating. More importantly, it provides a crux of the author's crusade in educating the public while helping to more thoroughly validate the pretext of his own writing.

Andrew Vachss
As in previous Burke novels, Vachss creates a below-the-radar urban landscape populated by a sordid collection of deliciously twisted characters. His depiction of women, however, as all-too-vulnerable survivors has become, I feel, a tad predictable. The exception being, thus far, the intense former DA-turned renegade, Wolfe, herself a survivor of a very different sort of abuse at the hands of entrenched bureaucrats and unresponsive institutions. I would love to see her character developed more fully in future episodes.

Andrew Vachss has carved out a distinct niche for himself within the crowded world of crime fiction with a terse, page-turning style and by directly addressing an issue only hinted at by others, an issue that plumbs the depths of the human psyche. From his unique vantage point of having worked extensively with children and youth, the implied allegations in his fictional creations are anything but false.

-- Jay Trachtenberg

It comes as no surprise that when Toni Morrison, acclaimed author of Tar Baby and Beloved, accepted the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters this past November, she gave a speech. The Dancing Mind (Knopf, $12 hard) is the text of that speech in book form. In this most anorexic of "slim volumes" Morrison affirms the unfettered exchange of ideas in a free society as the highest good. In such a society both writing and reading may be enjoyed for their own sake.

The exchange of ideas between two open minds, without fear of censorship or censure, is the metaphorical dance of the title. A society which is not threatened by this exchange becomes the venue in which the dance takes place. Such a forum exists in this country most accessibly for Morrison in the form of printed media and she charges those of us who write and read with the responsibility of maintaining it.

Reading, at leisure and in depth (spending quality time with a book, if you will) is the first and most difficult step in Morrison's dance of minds. The day-to-day recedes as the reader's mind creates an alternative reality mirroring the images and ideas produced by the writer's mind. Time passes differently. The experience is primarily its own reward, but there can be other benefits -- information and emotional support, for example. Nevertheless, it is the experience of reading, the process itself, which becomes the goal. Morrison brilliantly illustrates this point with the first of two anecdotes. A Ph.D. candidate struggles to teach himself this skill which many of us take for granted. As a young man born to affluence and privilege, his well-meaning (if somewhat misguided) parents held him to an itinerary of "carefully selected activities," from which he was to tick off a mental checklist of facts and emotional soundbites. There was no time to process or think about what had been experienced: Completing the checklist in the allotted time was the goal. He had never allowed himself to read an enjoyable book from cover to cover for its own sake. Like an English composition student with an overdue paper, he was too involved in a scavenger hunt for facts, setting, plot, style, etc.

Many of us experienced the dance of minds as children. Since our parents provided our basic needs, we were free to read as the mood struck us and did so with gusto, often aloud with shameless enthusiasm. As adults, the struggle for fiscal survival prevents many of us from reading as we once did. Instead, we read to advance our careers, to invest wisely in our 401Ks or to discover if the weather will allow us to drive to work or school in the morning. We read much as the graduate student did, to pass a test or complete a program.

The expression of what is meaningful, in writing or in some other form, is the second step in Morrison's dance. She met the subject of her second anecdote while in Strasbourg at a meeting of the Parliament of Writers, an organization committed to rescuing persecuted writers. A "splendidly educated" woman writer lives under an oppressive regime where her outspoken views have often placed her life in danger. In a moment of extreme emotion, she entreats Morrison to help her and other similarly persecuted writers: "You have to help us. They are shooting us down in the street.'"

As Americans, we cite the First Amendment in response to such atrocities and assert that it couldn't happen here. Nevertheless, The Austin Chronicle was temporarily "banned" from a local supermarket chain a few years ago; anti-abortion activists proudly claim responsibility for the deaths of family planning physicians and employees; the Communications Decency Act threatens to transform the Internet into a virtual Disneyland; and Larry Flynt (unpopular as he might be in some circles) was shot and paralyzed from the waist down by a white supremacist sniper who objected to his magazine. If the Jesse Helmses and "Community Standards" advocates of our society are given free reign, would the "official vigilantism" and even "murder" that Morrison speaks of be that far behind?

The fact that the publishing "industry" engages in its own form of censorship is not lost on Morrison. Books, magazine articles, films, and other media are often "marketed" based on their ability to "sell" to a particular audience. It is unfortunate that salability can have an adverse effect on the availability of alternative viewpoints. Well, there is no accounting for the public taste.

In The Dancing Mind, Toni Morrison affirms the exchange of ideas, through reading and writing, as the highest form of communication. She charges those of us who read and write with the responsibility of ensuring that there is always a safe space in which to do either. I enjoyed reading it and recommend it to anyone with a passionate interest in reading or writing. However, poor as I am, at $12 (71cents a page), I would wait for the paperback or for its inclusion in something else.

-- Don Palmer

What is "The American Dream?" Most of us would define it as, "If you work hard, and your company prospers, you too shall prosper." Filmmaker and humorist Michael Moore believes the real answer is, "You work hard, the company prospers -- and you lose your job."

In 1989 Moore directed Roger and Me, an inspired chronicle of his quest to contact General Motors chairman Roger Smith about the economic ruin that befell more than 40,000 laid off Flint, Michigan workers. Dark and dripping with irony, Roger and Me was the highest-grossing documentary film ever. Moore's next success was an Emmy-award winning run of two seasons with TV Nation, a sort of home video version of 60 Minutes.

Now Moore has published a bestseller, Downsize This: Random Threats from an Unarmed American (Crown, $21 hard). The book's 35 essays, scrutinizing politicos ("Would Pat Buchanan Cash a Check From Satan?"), government ("Don't Vote -- It Only Encourages Them"), and even O.J. ("O.J. Is Innocent") amount to a Poke in the Eye of The Man with a sharp stick.

Perhaps the keenest observer of America in the 1990s, Moore is Mark Twain with a word processor. "Show Trials I'd Like To See" relates how he'd enjoy packing 80,000 rabid citizens into Giants Stadium to demand justice against some of our times' main offenders, who'd be paraded to the 50-yard line by a tribunal comprised of Ed Asner, JFK, Jr., and Daisy Fuentes ("Don't ask"). Moore fantasizes about "The People versus the NRA," and "The People versus the Guy Responsible for the Little Silver Tape You Can't Get Off the CD Box."

One of the book's highlights, "A Sperm's Right to Life," puts forth that life begins with the sperm and that too many men are out there "recklessly aborting their sperm." Perhaps the most difficult of Moore's offerings is his defense of O.J. on the basis of police corruption and circumstantial evidence (sound familiar?), but his point of view is what makes the essay compelling. He closes it by addressing The Juice directly: "You tried harder than any black man to be `one of us' and a lot of good that did you."

In strange times, the only certainty is strangeness. A McDonald's restaurant in South Dakota is offering $25 to potential employees just to fill out an application, yet nearly 20 million Americans are either unemployed or are earning wages below the poverty line. However, before we all move to Sioux Falls, consider that our top CEOs are paid more than 200 times what their average workers earn, yet they continue to cut jobs in fearsome quantity to improve profits.

What can we do about all of this? According to Moore, we can join "Mike's Militia." The purpose of Mike's Militia includes selling raffle tickets, the proceeds for which will be used for militia members to go on field trips to places like the Nixon Library, John DuPont's World of Wrestling, or a sleepover in the Unabomber's shack. Strange times indeed. -- Stuart Wade

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