HAIKU by Andrew Vachss

Book Quote:

“I live among the dispossessed and disenfranchised. But, unlike others of my tribe, I have not descended as a result of damage done to me. The wounds that drove me to these depths were all self-inflicted.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody (NOV 3, 2009)

Andrew Vachss has done it again. He has captured life on the streets – – the homeless, the addicted, the dispossessed, the mentally ill – and has made these disenfranchised people the true heroes of the world. Vachss’s vision is a unique one, with a theme that is pervasive throughout his books. He reframes miscreants into heros and shows real evil where one least expects to find it – – in the ordinary citizen parading as Mr. Good or Mr. Show-off. It is those that we turn away from or that we find invisible or repulsive that Mr. Vachss turns into the super-heroes or saviors of the day. He writes about a cultural underground that many of us have never been privy to, an underground that has its own codes of morality and rule of law, where cities exist in tunnels underneath slums and cultures form based on an unspoken law belonging only to the dispossessed.

Haiku, Vachss’s newest book fits nicely into his thematic repertoire. Here we find Ho (a nickname short for Ho Chi Minh), the “leader” of a group of homeless men. Ho was once a famous and wealthy marshal arts teacher and dispenser of wisdom. He found himself becoming too grandiose, giving vacuous advice to others, and his ego taking over for what should have been a life of humility and learning from others. Because of this, he is responsible for the death of Chica, a young woman he was mentoring. At first, he is consumed by what he thinks is shame and guilt but later realizes is self-pity. “That same night, I walked away. From the dojo, from my living quarters behind it, from my life.” Penniless and alone, Ho makes his way among the tenements and slums of his city, building a secret living area of tunnels below the ground. “The priests had taught us that each man has a personal haiku, a haiku that must emerge from within. A master of haiku might be commissioned to produce thousands in his lifetime. But only one could truly express his own spirit.” Ho walks alone among others searching for his one true haiku which can bring him back to his true self.

Accompanying Ho on his journey is Michael, once a rising star in the world of stocks and trading. Michael became consumed with gambling and lost everything – – his money, family and his job. He is still a gambler at heart as the book opens, not having learned from what his addiction has already wrought. Then there is Lamont, once the leader of a gang. While in jail he taught himself to read, got a GED and finished college by correspondence. Some people in the literati set notice him and help him get a book of poetry published. When he gets out of jail, he enjoys being the center of attention, attending parties and salons. “But then I snapped that I wasn’t a star; I was an exhibit in a traveling circus. A petting zoo. ‘Literary circle,’ my ass. I was never one of them – – I was just the fucking entertainment. They held me that high up just for the fun of stepping away and watching me crash.” Lamont’s character reminded me of a protégé of Mailer’s and Mailer’s later book about him. Target is part of this entourage. Mentally ill, he only speaks in rhyme, called clanging. His “sentences’”are always four rhyming words such as “knife, life, wife, strife.” His clanging may have some covert meaning if one listens closely enough. Brewster, a schizophrenic, and the fourth member of the group has a library of noir mysteries on the top floor of an abandoned building. “Brewster’s every word is some sort of re-enactment of the books to which he is addicted.” Then there is Ranger, a Vietnam Vet with post-traumatic stress disorder who straddles two worlds – the world of being a soldier in Vietnam and the world of living on the streets.

The group is looking for some way to make money. Initially, Michael sees a woman get out of a white Rolls Royce and dump something into the river. He tries to convince the group that blackmailing her might be the way to go because what she threw into the water is likely a body. This is where the plot falls apart a bit because this aspect of the book is dropped midway and is not returned to in a cohesive manner.

We find out that Brewster’s building is scheduled for demolition and the group tries to find a way to save Brewster’s library. They know that without his library, Brewster will not have a reason to exist. Together, they come up with a plan to salvage Brewster’s books and move them to another location.

This novel is about what truly makes a good and honest man. Vachss sees honesty, loyalty, commitment and connection in places that others might not even look. In fact, he sees these aspects of morality in places that others won’t look, taking for granted that it can’t exist among the homeless, the mentally ill and the disenfranchised. For Vachss, that is where these qualities are most likely to be found. Lamont asks, in this book, “Are the only truly honest people on this earth those others regard as insane?”  For Vachss, the answer is probably “yes.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 29 readers
PUBLISHER: Pantheon (November 3, 2009)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
EXTRAS: Haiku on Vachss website
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of Terminal and Blue Belle

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Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Moslely

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Swansea Terminal by Robert Lewis


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November 3, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Contemporary, New York City

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