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Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010

Bright lights, big city, book-loving ninja


HAIKU, by Andrew Vachss. Pantheon, 2009, 214 pp., $24.95 (hardcover)

In 2008, prolific novelist Andrew Vachss (it rhymes with "tax") brought down the curtain on his series of 18 novels featuring the protagonist Burke, "an ex-con turned avenging angel for hire." Vachss' newest work, "Haiku," lacks the urban mercenary's charismatic presence, but it does return to familiar settings in subterranean New York, where we are introduced to a small band of street people who eke out a precarious existence.

The motley crew includes Lamont — who appears to have been modeled after Morgan Freeman — a sharp ex-gangbanger who upon release from prison published a book of poetry that briefly made him the darling of the literati; Ranger, a PTSD-plagued veteran who is still fighting the Vietnam war; Michael, a former stockbroker and gambling addict; Brewster, an obsessive-compulsive schizophrenic; and Target, an idiot-savant whose speech is limited to four-word outbursts composed in rhyme.

The first-person narrative voice belongs to an elderly Japanese who the others have nicknamed "Ho," owing to a superficial resemblance to the Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. Under Ho's reluctant leadership, the band pools its members' survival skills to provide sustenance and mutual support as they execute their collective mission: rescuing a huge library of paperbacks from a building that is slated for demolition.

Ho, who was raised in wartime Japan and trained from boyhood in the dark art of ninjutsu, is depicted as a kind of Taoist sage. His stealth techniques enable him to evade pursuers and kill enemies without being seen. Vachss also applies the notion of "invisibility" in a figurative sense, portraying how society largely obscures from its view the urban lumpenproletariat.

Alienated by the zeitgeist of postwar Japan, Ho emigrated to America, where he thrived as a martial arts instructor. But after the death of a promising female disciple who sought revenge on her abusive stepfather, Ho acquired a burden of guilt for having instilled her with overconfidence, closed his dojo and took to the streets.

Gullible Westerners, he mutters, naively worship the East: "In America, anything 'Oriental' was automatically infused with an aura of 'powers.' Herbalists once marginalized to ghetto existence became the object of chauffeur-driven pilgrimages. True celebrity status required a personal acupuncturist. . . The 'ancient ways' now symbolized some idol to be worshipped. 'Asian' and 'authentic' became synonyms, as if my race was incapable of producing charlatans."

The "haiku" referred to in the title would actually be correctly termed a jisei, a 17-syllable death poem. It's difficult to tell if Vachss — an attorney with a background in social work — devoted much effort to learning about Japan.

But to Vachss' legion fans, Japanology is doubtless secondary to the noir portraits of the violent and lawless existence led by inhabitants of New York's netherworld. As its title suggests, "Haiku" is a subtle exercise in expressing a lot while not saying much at all.



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