Shockwave by Andrew Vachss
Shockwave by Andrew Vachss (Pantheon Books, 2014) is another of these books that challenges the reader to decide why we read books. One possible explanation is the naive hope they will somehow produce a sense of enjoyment. A good author is one who will transport the reader to another place where interesting, morally instructive and inspiring things will happen. Or we may expect laughs sufficient to help us temporarily forget the misery in our lives. This list is as long as those preaching escapism will know. So what do we make of books that show us a darker side of life? Let’s take vigilanteism as an example. The protagonist in these books is an individual who ignores the current social systems and laws. Whereas ordinary citizens must wait for the police to act and courts to adjudicate, favoring always the presumption of innocence and the right to due process, the vigilante becomes judge and executioner, arbitrarily short-circuiting all the safeguards society has put in place, and dispatching all those deemed unworthy to continue living. So our protagonist identifies a rapist, kidnaps him and, in a quiet place where no-one can hear him scream, cuts off his testicles and allows him to bleed to death. Is this entertainment? Well no. The author does not intend to describe such a scene to make us laugh. The author is offering us a alternative social model in which individuals with strength and determination flout the law and impose their own punishments on those felt deserving.
This is a first-person narrative about the life and times of a young man who had the “good” fortune to be rescued from a life of misery by an older man who worked for the resistance during World War II. Knowing the world is dog-eat-dog, this man teaches the boy how to survive. As soon as he appears old enough, the boy enrolls in the French Foreign Legion and learns more skills. More importantly, he gains a new identity and French nationality. There’s no longer any link to his past. When he has served his time, he continues to work as a mercenary, amassing wealth and giving himself the chance to make a clean break and live a life of peace should be opportunity arise. When he’s seriously wounded, the first stage of his physical recovery is managed by a nurse working for Médecins Sans Frontières. Some years later, he meets her and discovers she has burned out. What used to be self-sacrifice in a noble cause has become an unendurable burden as the mountain of bodies resulting from man’s inhumanity to man is finally too much. They bond and move to what’s intended to be a quiet haven where both can recover from their past life experiences. Except people like that can never really switch off their moral compasses. Wherever they are, they find themselves unable to look away when they see injustices that will not be remedied by the local law enforcement systems. In such situations, is not triage not justified?
It may be a girl who has been raped but, when our couple look further into the situation, they discover there’s a small group of young men who target young women and, for various reasons, the law enforcement officers will not take action. How many victims would you tolerate if you had the will and the skills to remedy the situation in a permanent fashion? Or suppose you became aware that a down-and-out schizophrenic had been charged with a murder he almost certainly could not have committed. Indeed, the more you looked into the situation of this body washed up on the shore, the more convinced you became this was a professional hit. Yet the local DA has the simple political drive to reassure his neighbours they are safe from the homeless that live in the nooks and crannies of the town and countryside around them. This defendant is a convenient scapegoat to close a case and secure re-election. There’s no personal malice involved. It’s just a simple political expediency in operation. For our protagonist, there’s just one problem. The usual clandestine extermination of the wrongdoers will achieve nothing. Without positive evidence exonerating the schizophrenic, he will go either to jail or a mental hospital. So either the DA must agree to withdraw charges or a court must formally acquit of all charges. This is a challenge and, in a sense, the only thing that saves the book from wallowing in amorality. In a sense, this is a situation that can only be resolved by someone altruistic helping in the defence of an indigent defendant. A rich defendant could use his or her wealth to buy the services of private inquiry agents to ferret out the truth. A poor man with mental disabilities has nothing given the public defence attorney has no budget with which to buy in expensive services.
On balance, there’s just enough in the book to leave us on the right side of the moral line although there are an alarming number of bodies that are left at the end. It’s not always easy to extract information without breaking a few eggs. Allowing for the ease with which the right information comes into our hero’s possession once he starts looking, this is a smoothly constructed plot about an interesting character. Even though I may not sympathise with his methods, I can at least understand why he is what he is. To that extent, Shockwave is a success.
For the review of another book by Andrew Vachss, see Urban Renewal.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.