Two-Lane Blacktop

What can I do to get you behind the wheel of this action noir? Andrew Vachss

Andrew Vachss
The Getaway Man
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

Browse through any musty used bookshop and chances are you'll stumble on a run of grubby paperbacks with blunt titles and lurid covers. The best of the lot are the Gold Medal paperbacks, put out by a pulp publisher from the 1950s that specialized in potboilers, thrillers, and now-classic noirs--the kind of books that kept little boys up late at night and grown men from getting lonely.

Andrew Vachss's latest novel, The Getaway Man, is a homage to these humble literary roots, all the way down to its faux-vintage jacket with a dangerous-looking dame and a Robert Mitchum-like leading man hunched over a steering wheel. The fellow is obviously supposed to represent the book's hero, Eddie, a street-smart kid who grows up fast behind the wheel of a car--although after one starts reading the book, the chap on the cover looks a tad too old and wise for the role.

See, although The Getaway Man chronicles crime after crime in the sober voice of its hero, this is a book about innocence. Eddie doesn't drive for the pleasure of pimping or cruising. And he certainly doesn't take any pleasure in robbing people. He just wants to be a driver. Think about the guy piloting that white Dodge Charger in the 1971 cult film Vanishing Point and you'll get an idea of the kind of existential oneness with the road that Vachss is writing about here.

Unlike Vanishing Point, however, The Getaway Man is a swift, efficiently plotted story that's focused more on crime than on driving. From the get-go Eddie is dangerous behind the wheel. He starts out in his early teens as a joy rider but quickly graduates to becoming a getaway man. A getaway man, Vachss's tale instructs, is more than a limousine service. He is a mechanic, a scout, and all in all, the most important rung on a crew's ladder.

Eddie's fidelity to these responsibilities--in one shootout, his car takes 31 hits but he never runs for cover--earns him entrée to a first-rate crew. Yet their professionalism only highlights Eddie's innocence. J.C., the boss of the racket, is a father figure to Eddie: Even when it becomes clear that J.C. is less than his self-made myth, Eddie continues to desperately seek the man's approval.

One of the pleasures of this book, like the whole genre it mimics, is the way it evokes a complex psychology from so little information. Eddie needn't tell us too much about his past, and the very fact that it doesn't come up implies the character's break from it. There are no flashbacks here to an early father-son confrontation. Vachss merely shows us what Eddie has become today--a man who's willing to deed his independence to a higher order, so long as that power tells him he's needed.

For this reason, when a woman puts a wedge between Eddie's loyalty to the job and to himself, the decision Eddie has to make is quite clear: Either he betrays his crew and finally hits the road that calls so sweetly to him, or he betrays himself and goes through with a dirty job. It's a tough choice that requires virtues that folks have gotten used to talking about in the past tense. Vachss resurrects them in an old-fashioned way in The Getaway Man, stripping a story down to its bare bones and setting it on the highway to run.

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