Andrew Vachss believes there are two versions of the truth in America: what people believe, and what really happened. If you are comfortable with the mainstream version of post-World War II American history, which would have us believe that such tragic events as the murder of Emmett Till and the assassination of John F. Kennedy were the isolated acts of madmen, you may not feel the need for further enlightenment. But if, like Vachss, you’ve experienced a growing suspicion that you have been, and continue to be, spoon-fed a version of the truth fashioned by powerful unseen forces, you’ve probably wondered: is it just me, or is something not quite right here? If you know Vachss (his name rhymes with fax) from his gritty mystery series featuring the enigmatic Zen avenger Burke (Flood, Shella, Down Here, etc.), you know he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore. As a former federal investigator, social services caseworker, director of a maximum-security prison for young offenders and labor organizer, the 62-year-old lawyer has dedicated his life to protecting the powerless, particularly minorities, migrant workers and young people, from the powerful, particularly sexual predators and brain-dead bureaucracies.
In his new novel Two Trains Running, Vachss takes a break from Burke to re-imagine a two-week period in the pivitol year 1959, when, in his estimation, America headed down the wrong track. This isn’t the textbook version of what went down; instead, it’s filled with the kind of speculative alternatives that your uncles may have pondered over beverages on the back porch. It took years to write and a lifetime to wonder about: I’m not saying I have all the answers, Vachss admits by phone from his home in Manhattan, but through my life experiences, I have a lot of questions. The setting: Locke City, a fictional Midwestern mill town under the thumb of longtime boss Royal Beaumont and his gang of mountain men. The times are a-changin’ most disagreeably for old Roy: his hegemony is threatened on all sides by rival Irish and Italian mobs, youth gangs and neo-Nazis preparing for the coming race war. To defend his fiefdom, Beaumont summons Walker Dett, a chillingly efficient killer for hire whose presence in town threatens to ignite a bloodbath of epic proportions.
The historical setting was no accident. I think 1959 was the fulcrum on which everything turned. It was the first time that an election (Kennedy over Nixon) was actually hand delivered. People who were liberals and Democrats kind of wink-wink at that because their guy won, but that’s not the way to do it. It was just as we were leaving the glory days of Eisenhower, just as we were approaching Vietnam and the civil rights explosions, just as England was divesting itself of its empire. I knew this was the fulcrum. The aptly titled Two Trains Running enables Vachss to explore the many dichotomies in America, particularly families (clans, interest groups, security agencies, etc.) that continue to undermine our personal freedoms. Any similarity to the present is strictly intentional. You have a clannishness where obedience to the clan is the highest value, Vachss says. There are people now where, literally, if you question something, you’re told that’s treasonous or that’s disloyal which is antithetical to Americanism, which is all about questioning authority and holding authority accountable. Certain historical mysteries still vex Vachss. Did the FBI foment racial unrest for its own purposes in the 1950s and ’60s? Did the government intentionally spare Al Capone in order to avoid further mythologizing him? Was John Dillinger’s death faked? Did the two men who murdered Emmett Till act alone? If you look around in the headlines over the last year, look at how many cases from that era are all of a sudden being reopened: Emmett Till; Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman; there was a civil rights murder in Tallahassee, Florida, that’s been reopened; there’s one outside of Atlanta. What I really want to do with the book so badly is to have people take another look a harder look rather than just accept what they’ve been told. Vachss found an ingenious technique to embed his suspicions right into the narrative by breaking the book into bite-size chapters, each with a date and military time code. Gradually, the reader comes to wonder who is keeping these detailed logs and why.
The standard third-person narrator wouldn’t work because that narrator is omniscient; that narrator just knows too much. I needed a technique where the reader could actually be the surveyor of what was going on and by listening and watching, learn as opposed to tuning in to someone’s thoughts, he says.
As its title implies, Two Trains Running operates on two separate tracks: I wrote a real fast mover so you can pick this up and read it like a movie and it flies by real quick, lots of action, lots of intrigue. But there’s an undercurrent that it’s my goal to get you to look at. If I succeeded, it’s a book that people will read more than once. The setting may be pre-Starbucks and cell phones, but the commentary is aimed at the state of the nation today. Despite his righteous anger, could Vachss actually be an optimist? You know what? I actually am. But it’s the long-term optimism of someone who says three, four generations from now we might be OK. It’s not like I’m optimistic for the immediate future. Clearly, unless something is done, the Supreme Court is going to shift. Clearly, if that’s done, personal freedoms are going to erode while religious peculiarities are going to be exalted. That’s a frightening thought. We’re like this old horse that knows the way home but it’s not in a hurry. We’re going to get there but boy, it’s not a straight line. Jay MacDonald is a writer in Oxford, Mississippi.