The first ten pages or so of Andrew Vachss' Two Trains Running were so clunky in the writing that my heart sank; I'd been dying to read it, and even pestered Ed to get me one, and it would have been a great waste of his time if it ended up being unreadable.
(On an unrelated note, check out Ed's secret history of literature. There's something dementedly Georges Perec about it--and if you have never read Perec's short piece "Some of the things I really must do before I die," published in English translation in the volume Species of Spaces, get it at once! Especially if you teach writing--it makes a great model/exercise in autobiographical listmaking.)
Here's a list of the phrases from Two Trains Running that made me worry, all drawn from pages 1-10: "a man in his mid-twenties, with a wiry build and a narrow, triangular face"; "A lantern-jawed man" who "held a double-barreled shotgun in his right hand like an accountant holding a pencil"; "a short, bull-necked man wearing a threadbare gray flannel suit," his "perfectly rounded skull ... covered by a thick mat of light-brown hair"; "a massive man in a wheelchair" with "a large, squarish head, with wavy light-brown hair, combed straight back without a part, going white at the temples," ears "flat against his skull, without lobes"; "a broad-shouldered man hunched over a typewriter," with hair "as black as printer's ink" and "raptor's eyes"; "a doughy man wearing half-glasses on the bridge of a bulbous nose," his scalp "fringed with thick mouse-brown hair"; "a thin man with a sharply receding hairline and long, yellowing teeth"; "an older, broad-faced man with eyes so heavily flesh-pouched that it was impossible to tell their color." Seriously, all in the first ten pages.... it makes you think you never want to hear about a character's hair color or body type again.
But I am happy to say that the novel is excellent! The New York magazine header is "A Pulp Novelist Goes Literary," which I find a bit weird, but whatever... The Burke novels were definitely played out, the last few in particular felt extraordinarily forced--when Vachss killed off the lovely Pansy (sorry, spoiler... but it was some volumes ago, so anyone who reads these books probably already read that painful scene) and apparently Burke too, then has him come back to NY unrecognizable after plastic surgery, you really had to cringe. (I was still awaiting the next installment with excitement, so obviously I don't mean this as a rejection, just to say that there was a falling-off in quality several books ago).
But this is a departure in the best possible way, and Vachss has definitely pulled it off. The texture is reminiscent of T. Jefferson Parker, the ambition and scope of James Ellroy. I did think with a pang, though, of how much I like Pete Dexter (Brotherly Love is my absolute favorite, but all his books are great), especially because of the way he's a brilliant prose stylist on top of all his other good qualities. But not everyone can be Pete Dexter, and this really was a good read.
(NB I am glad to see this book tastefully doesn't have an author photo at all, Vachss definitely gets my vote for creepiest author head shots ever. It's the eye-patch....)