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Ken Bruen reviews The Weight by Andrew Vachss

Andrew Vachss’ novel The Weight hits bookstores on November 9th. Read an excerpt on Keep reading for Ken Bruen’s thoughts on this latest entry in the Vachss canon.

A.V. has long been among my essential reads.

No question, he brings out a book, I buy it.

Few other authors in this category for me.




Have I been disappointed.

A stunning kaleidoscope of books in almost every genre.  From children’s books, through
numerous standalone’s, to the legendary Burke series.

To date, I have my own favorites, that I return to, time after time, for sheer entertainment and

To learn.

Two Trains Running rivals the best of Ellroy, takes a staggering risk in its style and juxtaposition of time frames.

I still gasp when I return to it.

Why isn’t Vachss a household name?

He has no interest in that.

And while you’ve heard it before, from lesser writers, who watch their
Amazon ratings with something close to addiction.

He is respectively

A warrior

Dark poet

Tireless campaigner in his crusade for The Protection of Children.

His CV reads like the stuff of legend.

It is.

His new book

The Weight

May be his finest hour to date.

This novel, more so than any others, shows, an analysis of collective and individual

But Vachss as always, and he rarely gets credit for this, in The Weight, especially, demonstrates,


And empathy.

Few novelists, especially in the confining restraints of the Mystery genre, have probed the multi-culturalism and globalization  leading to an ever escalating tension.

Stephen Knight, in his essay, discussing the subversive potential of detective fiction, would have
relished The Weight.

It fulfills his criteria of:

“Postmodern crime fiction that has, implicitly at least, longer-standing roots  than other forms of critique and resistance. Focused on gender and race, that have so strongly and  positively developed in recent decades.”

Knight wrote that in 2004, a full six years before The Weight came blasting down the critical pike.

The Weight, again, ostensibly a mystery, in its deceptive simplicity, proved the theory that
it is only by a return to the original trauma, whether personal or urban, or in Vachss case both, that

A re-writing

A re-articulation

Of hurt, real or imagined, can the future even be considered.

Vachss, again and again, in The Weight, almost sublimely, shakes up the traditional definition of
mystery. His off the radar intelligence, and scintillating vision make The Weight something truly

Vachss has captured the urban malaise in way that I haven’t read since the novels of Newton Thornburg.

The descriptions in the novel of the main character’s, indicate not only, the radical social changes
once afoot in American Society

But how these changes affect subjectivity, as shown time and time
again in the voice of the main character.

Lest all this sound too intellectual, The Weight works on the surface as a stunning mystery.

Compulsively readable, gripping and above all, the sheer compassion of Vachss sensibility.

Here be a writer at the very summit of his astonishing power, and he seems to say
‘Sure enjoy the novel as just another mystery.’


And with Vachss, there is always the …….but

‘If you want to engage on a  more profound level, then here it is.’

Unlike most reviews, I’m not describing  plot.

The novel is too sublime in the real reading to do it such disservice.

Hemingway, in How it Was, pg. 352, wrote

“Nobody knows really or understands and nobody has ever said the secret. The secret ( my italics) is that it is poetry written into prose and it is the hardest of all things to do”

I was seriously tempted to just use those lines, nothing else for the review of The Weight.

Coupled with the publication of his Oct novel, Heart Transplant, here is a double whammy of Vachss’ real gift: the articulation of the inarticulate,

A cri do coeur of the disaffected.

Vachss ultimately shows, a personal code that is uncompromising, a hostility to the forces of so
called law and order and yet

Yet…………………………his aim, however blurred, is to restore and re-establish
some semblance of human contact.

As Beckett cried ‘Only connect.’

The Weight connects in ways you never imagined and puts the mystery novel back in its rightful
place as a true force for social change.

He is a granite poet of the marginalized, a writer who only challenges every pre-conceived notion of what a mystery should be but moves beyond to deliver his uber-urban masterpiece.

Hemingway again, in a letter to Harvey Breit, 1952

In truly great writing no matter how many times you read it you do not know how it is  done. That is because there is a mystery in all great writing and that mystery does not dis-sect out. It continues and it is always valid. Each time you re-read you see or learn something new.” (Selected Letters, pg 770)

I was teaching in Athens when I first read Down in the Zero. I was in the process then, as I still am, of learning how to write with muscle and yet withdraw the sucker punch. That novel was a pivotal one. I thought if I can ever come within a nun’s prayer of that style, my writing will have been worthwhile.

A  fellow teacher, asked me why I was forever reading……….Vachss

I told him, in all Irish-ed truth,

‘Stone poetry.’

Vachss said:

So this business about life imitating art is just so much nonsense. Because what I write is not art and life isn’t imitating it. It’s life I’m writing about. There are thing s in this book that I hope are going to confront specifically this administrations’ whole trafficking initiative.”

At the risk of incurring AV’s wrath, I beg to differ.

Derek Raymond wrote:

“the writers function is to report back from the trenches and in my opinion, by sheer passion, and alchemy, transform it into art.”

And music, not something AV gets credited for.

No Britney or Lady Ga Ga.

Hard Candy.

The main character in The Weight, reminded me of Walker Dett in Two Trains Running.

Dett, a hired killer, master tactician, is bent on wholesale destruction.

In The Weight you can see the resonance, the legacy of Dett in the last quarter of the novel.

The symbolic  shifting of America in The Weight, is not a linear trajectory, but a series of encounters, dialogues that occur when the global weight of American society clashes with its most basic inhabitants.

There is a danger in subjecting a novel such as The Weight, to critical scrutiny that by thus isolating it to intellectual dissection, you lose the sheer craft of the writing.

The sense of fate, inherent in nigh on every line of The Weight, particularly established in the opening fifty pages is brought to a state of high drama in the concluding moments of the book.

AV, even more so than Sallis or Woodrell, demonstrates that narrative and compassion can exemplify and ultimately hurl a novel that shapes the symbolic in its absolute entirety.

Re-reading The Weight, I wonder if anyone can truly capture it’s essence.

Burke’s Drunken Monkey.  His way of tackling fear might well encapsulate AV’s purpose in The Weight.

“I may not come up with any good ideas but f you tried to read my mind all you’d get would be vertigo.”



I found that belief, by the end of the book, is not to be found in imaginary identifications of the romantic concept of what a mystery novel should be. Rather the power of words which create and  shape a narrative that belies the very notion of easily  classifiable fiction.

Ken Bruen, Galway, 2010.

Ken Bruen has been a finalist for the Edgar and Anthony Awards, and has won a Macavity Award, a Barry Award, and two Shamus Awards for the Jack Taylor series. He lives in Galway, Ireland. Learn more at

Come back tomorrow for a Conversation between Ken Bruen and Andrew Vachss.