Bestselling author Andrew Vachss wonders what the devotees of his inarguably adult hard-boiled crime fiction will think of his new book, Heart Transplant—created in partnership with illustrator Frank Caruso—for which he has taken his detective fiction and reconfigured it for a younger audience. Somewhere between graphic novel and picture book, Heart Transplant is aimed at the victims of bullies with the intent of helping the victims and their parents, family and friends deal with the situation effectively. The book will be published by Dark Horse this week.
“I think it’s certainly going to be a stone shock to people who are used to reading my books,” Vachss said. “Frank would tell me, considering the audience this book is aimed at, you’ve got to lose some of the language. I know that’s the way you write, he said, and I know that your books are adult only, but this isn’t. I said okay and went through and got it balanced out better.”
Heart Transplant is both a meditation on cultural views about bullies and the story of Sean, a kid whose tragic life takes a turn when he is taken in by a tough old guy named Pop following the murder of his mother.“All the ingredients are there for a bad, bad ending for everybody. A happy ending, I don’t know— but the correct ending, I’m absolutely sure of,” Vachss said.
For Heart Transplant Vachss reconfigured the typical paths in crime fiction, fashioning characters who choose different forks in the similar roads offered in detective novels. Wrong turns are made part of the past and characters like Pop and Sean move forward with the understanding that life is a series of choices. It’s not just Sean who gets a second chance, but his benefactor as well, and both as a result of their choices.
“If you think it through, it was Pop who got another chance to be a father,” Vachss said. “He took that chance, but he paid what that cost.” That price is what Vachss hopes many readers absorb. It’s the reality of what it means to be a parent or guardian who must help a kid face bullies. Combatting bullies requires more involvement with the complete child.
“The whole concept of a Heart Transplant, you don’t really get until the end when you see the sacrifice that was made,” he said. “But if you really want your children to not be bullied, that’s what you have to aim at, not teaching them martial arts.”
As with any of Vachss’ books, Heart Transplant addresses a dark side to life that pre-teens might not have encountered yet, and might not be prepared for once they do. Vachss first experienced this ugly side—child sexual abuse and incest—as a public health inspector for sexually transmitted diseases in the 1960s. He eventually began writing detective novels in an effort to get out the truth about what he had seen within the entertainment framework of crime fiction. Unfortunately, Vachss found little solace in the initial reactions to his stories.
“The reviews were about what kind of a sick, fevered mind do I have to make up such stuff. Meanwhile, I’m looking at it!” he said. “I realized that people just don’t know. What happened was that I really wanted to be a kind of journalist and I thought that if I could show people all this and they got angry enough, then something would happen. I was wrong. What I got instead was letters from prisoners saying, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly how it is.’ I’m not getting letters from somebody in Scarsdale.”
Writing HT was an emotional experience for Vachss, who does not present his crusade against bullies in gentle terms. As Vachss sees it, bullying is an expression of power more than just an expression of violence. It is physical and mental abuse for the purpose of control. He sees it on a world wide scale through the actions of dictators like Hitler, and through horrific conflicts like that in Biafra, which he witnessed first-hand, as well as on the more personal, daily stage of life.
“You know how people you interview say all the time, I’m sure, that their book was a labor of love? This to me was a labor of hate. I hate bullies. I hate them,” Vachss said. “I’m not good enough with words to describe how much I hate them. I wouldn’t stop short of this—if you could put them all together in one building and I got the chance to blow it up, I wouldn’t hesitate.”
Vachss takes great pains to differentiate between bullying and fighting. In his experience, fighting is a part of life that he likens more as gambling than intimidation—a fighter doesn’t know if he’s going to win. “Fighting means you could lose. Bullying means you can’t. A bully wants to beat somebody, he doesn’t want to fight somebody,” Vachss said.
The format of the storytelling in Heart Transplant is meant to widen the book’s impact and make it appealing to many audiences. Vachss has worked in comics before and had been amazed at the letters he got from kids in regard to comics storytelling in books like the Hard Looks series, which he did for Dark Horse in the 1990s. Though he admits that those books were not meant kids, Heart Transplant is and if Vachss is going to change the world—or at least make an impact on it—kids are the ones he needs to reach.
“Forty year olds, it’s not a question of changing their minds, because they’ve already invested in various political and social and cultural stuff,” said Vachss. “That’s where they are. Moving them is monumental.”
Vachss believes that society sets up victims of bullying, perpetuating the humiliation by requiring them to apologize. He points to fraternity hazing as a typical way bullying is legitimized, with the victim made to feel that pain and humiliation are a necessary ritual to maturity. For one year of hell, Vachss points out, the victim gets three years of tormenting others. Humiliation begets humiliation.
Vachss views the high school reunion scenario as the most common scene of that perpetuation and has even witnessed the behavior on reality television, in shows about reunions where the victim is expected to laugh off the past bullying actions of his former tormenters. Vachss believes this is part of a systematic effort to downplay bullying, especially in the entertainment media, and particularly in movies and television. We are raised in it, he said, and we act upon those lessons.
“The human race, unlike every other species, we have a lot of choices, and we’ve evolved so high that we can choose to torment and torture and even exterminate others, and that is a choice that’s made every day,” he said.
Vachss realizes that getting Heart Transplant to every reader it could help will be a battle. As a work that is hard to pigeonhole and one that fits on the shelves for fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels and more, Vachss said he is prepared to change the world one reader at a time if he has to.
“That’s the cosmic goal of this book, we want to start recoding the cultural software and this is our best shot,” Vachss said. “I don’t own a TV station. I don’t have a radio program. This is our best shot. I know it’s insanely ambitious, but this is the best punch we’ve got to throw to try and accomplish that end. If this turns out to be the last book I ever write, I’ll go out with a smile.”