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Shades of Gray

Andrew Vachss wants you to ask the questions

By Rick Kleffel

Andrew Vachss' (rhymes with ax) latest novel, Two Trains Running (Pantheon, $25 cloth), is a gripping page-turner set in Locke City, a medium-size mid-American border town in 1959, which serves as an amalgam of every city that straddles state lines. Reading much like the surveillance log of an obsessive voyeur, Two Trains Running begins as tough men meet under mysterious circumstances. Locke City blossomed during World War II, but when the war ended, the town's industrial economy disappeared. Only by turning itself into a tourist-safe trap featuring gambling and prostitution has Locke City flourished again. Royal Beaumont, a crippled gangster, guarantees that these activities are safe. His rules maximize profit, minimize risk and violence--and keep the money flowing freely. Beaumont has brought in Walker Dett, a specialist, to protect his investment, but Dett rapidly finds that the prize he's protecting is not what he was expecting.

This is a novel of all show, no tell, a book that plays out almost entirely in hard-boiled dialogue. Who is who isn't at first clear. But contrary to what you'll read elsewhere, this book is not a testosterone-charged cycle of mayhem. Instead, Vachss only shows the surface, leaving the reader assemble the big picture. It's a virtuoso piece of storytelling, totally exciting, never manipulative.

This is not to say that Two Trains Running is easy reading. Yes, each short section does go down smoother than a 200 dollar shot of scotch, but putting together the big picture requires reflection and serious attention. In town to interview for local NPR affiliate KUSP, Vachss said of Two Trains Running, "This cover is black and white, because inside is nothing but shades of gray. Everybody gets to make a choice. I literally have had readers respond to this book radically different. ... The modern parallels to this book are total ... and I can prove it. Clearly, I didn't write this book last week. ... So how did I know that they were going to dig up Emmett Till's body? I didn't. How did I know that all of a sudden they were going to prosecute the murderers of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman? There are Civil Rights era prosecutions happening all over the country right now, and they only have one thing in common--somebody opened the FBI files.

"And that I did know. And that's one of the drive forces of the book. Just as book reviewers in the past have read truth that I write, but because of their very narrow, cloistered, limited life-experience decided it was fantasy, when I write in this book about the FBI having 'assets'--paid informants--literally riding in Klan death cars, people are going to say, 'Oh, he's made that up.'

"I have not. When people are done with this book, I will be best rewarded if they are questioners, if they say, 'OK, there's a lot of things this guy says in this book. Some I know to be true. Some, I've subsequently found out by doing a little research are true. Others are kind of speculative; I wonder if they're true or not? Let me take a look.' If that happens, I'm a winner."

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From the July 13-20, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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