Picks and Pans Review: Another Chance to Get It Right

updated 05/03/1993 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/03/1993 01:00AM

by Andrew Vachss

Ghost is a hit man, primed only to survive. In Shella (Knopf, $20), Vachss' seventh novel, Ghost's invulnerable shell is pierced, first by a woman—a strip dancer named Shella—and then by witnessing acts so debased he's shaken to his soul, something he didn't know he had.

Anyone familiar with Vachss' grim oeuvre will not be surprised to learn that the horror that awakens Ghost's dormant conscience is child abuse. It is the evil at the core of all Vachss' work, whether as a novelist or as a Manhattan attorney specializing in juvenile justice and child abuse. With Shella, Vachss hardens and leans his writing even more than in his earlier novels featuring the abuse-avenging antihero, Burke. Burke shows some warmth, humor, even remorse. Ghost is a blunt instrument, period.

Emerging from prison, he tries to locate Shella, whom he had been seeing but who had failed to visit him behind bars. His search leads him to a cult that preys on teenagers and preteens, turning them into criminals, abusing them sexually, keeping them in squalor. Deciding to save the children, Ghost becomes an even more brutal terminator than Burke. Discovering unknown levels in himself, he finds his way to redemption, albeit a bloody one.

The violence aside, Shella chillingly asks whether we really understand our children's needs and care enough to stand by them through the ordeal of adolescence.

Another Chance to Get It Right (Dark Horse, $14.95; 800-862-0052) is light to Shella's dark. A series of tightly written fictional vignettes filled with a spirit of redemption, it is intended for readers as young as preteens (though parents may want to screen the book first). Each tale is a well-executed literary warning about recognizing the dangers facing children: from various kinds of molesters, from computer-porn networks, from abusive or neglectful parents. The message to both parents and children is: Be aware, pay attention.

Parents may legitimately wonder whether this material is too frightening and forbidding for youngsters. My 11-year-old daughter, Kate, read four of the 14 stories and found them instructive, not terrifying. One, about how protective polar bears are toward their young, she called "neat." Another Chance is Dr. Seuss dressed up as a Scorsese movie, another on-target hit by an author who has made children his primary concern.

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