When the weight comes down

January 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

The Weight. Andrew Vachss; $17.00 paper 978-0-307-74131-8, 264 pp., Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

Andrew Vachss specializes in noir thrillers about honourable criminals who mete out what is colloquially known as “rough justice.” His most famous series character is Burke, an ex-con turned private investigator who, along with a motley crew of associates, tracked and punished rapists and child molesters. Vachss retired Burke in 2008, perhaps because the author himself grew weary of trafficking so close to the abyss. “I needed a guide to Hell,” Vachss is quoted as saying, “and an angel wouldn’t do.” Since closing out the Burke series, he has written a standalone novel called Haiku (2009) and a graphic novel called Heart Transplant (2010).

His latest standalone, The Weight, features Tim “Sugar” Caine, a 255-pound behemoth who returns home from a jewellery heist to find the cops waiting for him. Thinking they are onto the recent score, he accompanies them to the police station, where he is told that the victim of a violent rape has picked him out of a photo array. His only problem: to beat the rap, he’d have to admit to what he was really doing. The cops know the score, so they offer him a deal: give up his partners in the jewellery heist and walk, or face prison time for a rape he didn’t commit.

Sugar, like most Vachss anti-heroes, lives by a fairly rigid code of honour, so instead of rolling over on his crew, he takes the weight and is sent to jail on a five-year bit.

The early descriptions of prison life and the politics that go on behind bars are riveting, in particular because of the dispassion with which Sugar narrates them:

That’s why I never showed anyone my new shank. I know – I know now, I mean – that you never show a guy who might be a problem for you that you’ve got something for him. If he’s not bluffing, that won’t back him off, just make him bring something for himself next time. And if he was bluffing, showing him steel might just turn him serious. You can buy anything Inside. Even guys to do your work for you.

And Vachss has always been a dab hand at hard-boiled dialogue, especially between his criminal characters:

The first test was always Population. This time, it happened real quick. Some greasy little punk half my size says, “What they call you on the street, esé? In here, you got to pay to stay. Otherwise, what they be calling you is the other white meat, comprende?”

“Azúcar,” I said, smiling at him.

“What?”

“You asked me what people call me on the street, right? So I just told you … esé.”

Unfortunately, the phony rape beef and the scenes inside Rikers and Dannemora (known as “Little Siberia” due to its proximity to the Canadian border) only account for the novel’s set-up. Before long, Sugar is back on the street, where he tracks down Solly, the elderly crime boss who masterminded the jewellery heist. Solly sets Sugar up with a new identity and his cut from the robbery. However, one of the thieves from five years ago has vanished, and although the statute of limitations ran out for Sugar while he was in jail, the fact that other members of the crew switched states in the interim means they could still face prosecution should the missing man decide to roll over on them. Solly asks Sugar to travel to Florida, track down the missing crew member, and make sure he doesn’t squeal.

From there, the plot becomes increasingly convoluted, involving Albie, one of Solly’s deceased associates; Albie’s widow, Rena (with whom Sugar becomes romantically entangled); a Lincoln that has to be moved back and forth between locations for reasons that remain utterly obscure; and a partners desk that conceals a little blue book Solly wants in his possession. Why does Solly want the book and what precisely was the relationship between him and Rena’s late husband? Even Sugar and Rena (who changes her name to Lynda over the course of the story) appear confused about the details and the reasons for doing the things they do.

Moreover, Sugar remains adamant in his desire to find the man who committed the rape he was sent up for and make him pay, but this aspect of the plot, so fascinating in the early going, appears more and more like a pallid MacGuffin, an inciting incident that was tantalizing at the outset, but becomes almost incidental over the long haul.

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