The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

December 21, 2007

Book review: Audio version of 'Terminal' grabs from first word

Audiobooks aren’t something I listen to with great frequency. Although the Joplin Public Library has a large collection of them, available in a variety of formats — cassette, compact disc, MP3 and now Playaway — I usually only check them out when I need something to keep me company on a long drive. (Which can be dangerous. When I listened to David Sedaris read his collection “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim,” I laughed so hard that I nearly drove off the road.)

I tend to shy away from listening to books by my favorite authors until I’ve read them first. I prefer to be affected by the writer’s words on the page and my own imagination before I’m swayed by an actor’s interpretation. However, my busy schedule recently led me to pick up Andrew Vachss’ latest novel, “Terminal,” on compact disc.

Vachss, an attorney who exclusively represents children and teens, is highly regarded for both his writing and his dedication to protecting young people from victimization. Although he has written short stories, poetry, articles, essays and even graphic novels, he is perhaps best known for his crime novels featuring a protagonist simply named Burke, an ex-con turned investigator who works outside the system; the cases Burke accepts and the ways in which he resolves them are definitely not in keeping with mainstream society’s laws or morals.

In “Terminal,” the 17th Burke novel, this anti-hero takes on a case that brings him into contact with white supremacists, an extensive Israeli spy network and wealthy men who’d prefer to keep their past deeds buried. Literally.

Vachss’ writing has a hard-boiled beauty to it, often laced with dark humor and bitterness. Here Burke describes a bartender: “His eyes showed signs of life — I guessed somewhere around geranium level.” The novel’s urban setting gets the same treatment: “The Bowery station on the J line is what happens to a neighborhood once politicians realize the people who live there don’t vote. Caveman paintings lined the dingy walls. Like all artists who can’t afford new canvas, the taggers just painted over the ones they already had. The structural columns were so encrusted with layer after layer of graffiti that they were an inch thicker than when they started.”

There’s also a deep vein of emotion beneath the remorseless façade of Vachss’ characters. Burke is frequently assisted by his “family” — an assortment of individuals with shadowy pasts who, though not related to him biologically, are most definitely his chosen loved ones. These people who have known great pain in their lives would do anything for each other. (Vachss doesn’t offer much in the way of exposition, so you’d be wise to read the books in order, from the beginning.)

And in all of the Burke novels, no one is immune from harm. As “Terminal” closes, the fate of a major character is left undetermined. But there’s a gleam of hope, too: Burke, who has long mourned the loss of his beloved Neapolitan Mastiff, Pansy, seems ready to team with a new dog, a pit bull named Rosita.

“Terminal” is the first Vachss book I’ve listened to rather than read; I initially had my doubts about the wisdom of doing so. Vachss is a must-read author for me, and I was concerned about how his work would be interpreted. But David Joe Wirth’s rich voice grabbed me from the first word. His timing was perfect, and he did an excellent job of voicing the various characters, with a few minor exceptions.

But consider yourself warned: Vachss’ writing is not for everyone. The language he uses in this novel, as in his others, is raw. Very raw. While listening to “Terminal,” I often found myself rolling up the car windows when I stopped at red lights, lest people in the vehicle next to me be offended. But the language is realistic, when one considers the world in which Burke lives. If you’re ready for a trip into that darker world, give “Terminal” and other books by Andrew Vachss a try.

Lisa E. Brown is the Administrative Assistant at the Joplin Public Library.