Life is tough. It’s tougher when you’re on death row.
In his newest whodunit, Vachss (The Weight, 2010, etc.) combines his trademark black humor with his longstanding concern for children and their well-being. The result is a strikingly original character named Esau Till, born with a “spine thing” that has kept him from standing on his own for all the 40-plus years of his life. Esau has a genius IQ and a sharp sense of justice, if a vigilante one; no being bullied on the schoolyard or in life for him. Indeed, he has a skill that is very much in demand in the rough redneck quarters in which he moves—he makes a mean bomb. What keeps Esau motivated on this unforgiving planet is his younger brother Tory-boy, Lennie to his George, who is beyond simpleminded and is constantly in some mischief or another—dangerously involving the local neo-Nazi contingent at one point. Esau and Tory descend from a fellow known locally as the Beast, who made a sport of incest and murder until receiving his comeuppance, and they’re not what you might call model citizens. Even though Esau does a fine job of clearing the streets of criminals, if often on behalf of other criminals, he’s also worked his way through the catalog of civil offenses and felonies. For his trouble, we find Esau in the pen awaiting the final needle, telling his tale to pass the time. Vachss structures his novel as a sort of loose, episodic confessional that builds the story stone by stone, strewing the landscape with bodies (“Before he could open his mouth to ask a question, I shot him in the face”) and dispensing folksy wisdom (“If a man walks into a liquor store after dark, it’s either because he’s got money...or because he doesn’t”). The outlook is insistently bleak: Esau and Tory were born into suffering and will go out that way, too, sharing some of the wealth as they wander through the world.
A smart, cynical glimpse into the human condition—and into lives no one should envy.