Monday, April 14, 2014

Galveston, by Nic Pizzolatto

Simon and Schuster, 2011
originally published 2010
258 pp


On the cover of my book there's a big old white circle that advertises that Nic Pizzolatto was the "creator, writer and executive producer of the HBO crime series True Detective."  I'll admit that after watching the series and loving every single second of it, I had to read this book.  So -- after a 3-week delay getting it from the publisher, I got my chance.  Galveston is one of those books I like more for the writing and the author's vision than for the crime element. Beware: there's nothing happy at all about this book -- absolutely nothing. Definitely one right up my alley.

To start this depress-fest, Roy Cady walks out of a doctor's office with a diagonosis of lung cancer. But that isn't the sum total of all of his problems. His girlfriend is sleeping with his boss Stan, a mobster in New Orleans. Going back to Stan's bar, Stan tells Cady he's got a job. He and another enforcer are to go to the home of "a president or former president or attorney for the dockworkers' local" named Sienkiewicz. The stevedores are the subject of a federal probe, and this could mean trouble for Stan and his partners. Stan doesn't want anyone to get hurt "bad;" the visit is to make Sinkiewicz "play for the team."  Cady is told not to take a gun, which strikes him as odd. It all makes sense, though, when Cady and his partner get to their target's home and walks right into an ambush. Sinkiewicz is dead, and the three men in black jumpsuits sporting ski masks turn their gun on Angelo. Luckily, Cady's prepared -- as they go to fire at him, Cady whisks out a stiletto, grabs a gun, and takes care of the three in about five seconds.  He walks out of the place with a folder filled with papers and a young prostitute named Raquel (nicknamed Rocky). Cady knows the handwriting is on the wall  -- that his boss wants him dead -- so he flees with Rocky to East Texas, his own home.   Rocky insists on making a stop and while Cady waits, he hears gunshots and out comes Rocky with her little three year old sister. Cady knows he should dump the pair and take off, but he just can't, and they move on to Galveston, holing up in a third-rate hotel filled with a strange crew of lost and misfit souls.  It's a decision that will end up costing him much more than he realizes.  This all happens in 1987; Cady relates the story from 2008, still looking over his shoulder, with hurricane Ike on the way. 

The crime in this book is downright gritty and there are a number of violent scenes throughout the novel, but for me, all of that is secondary.  It's the landscape in the backdrop and the characters around whom the drama in this book takes place that make this less-than-upbeat book so excellent.   For the most part, all of the characters are so well imagined that you can't help but want to get into their lives, even for just a minute or two.  Take, for example, the lives that  play out at the rundown off-beach Emerald Shores motel in Galveston.  Among them is the owner, Nancy, who when Cady first meets her, is listening to radio talk shows about the New World Order and the Mark of the Beast. Nancy notes that Texas will be the "ones to shoot back" when the UN invades.  Her ex-husband is Lance, who still loves her and makes breakfast each morning on his grill for the guests.  In Number 2 there's a man who came for a job on a rig that didn't exist when he got there, bringing with him  two kids "and a woman" who "gets fatter every day."  He is described as having
"a  big face, long and wide, a little skipping stone of a chin, and a fat, smooth neck that erased his jawline. his hair was longish and unkempt, a wifebeater T and stiff, smelly jeans stretched by a cannonball gut that made his back curve inward."
Even before the author tells you so,  you just know in your gut that  this family is going to come to a bad end. There's also Tray, the motorcycle rider with foil on his windows, product of a group home and  a kid who thinks he's tough, but has no clue what it really takes to be bad.  He is a junkie, though, and Cady knows that he can't be trusted.   Then there's Cady himself, who in one of the most impressive scenes of the novel goes to visit his former love Carmen, now living in a security-guarded community and on her way to her Junior League meeting as he arrives. It's through Carmen that  Cady comes to understand  that a lot of the rosy past he's been holding on to was screened through his own alcohol haze -- his vision of their past in no way matches hers. Another thing about Cady -- with the cancer death sentence hanging over him, he doesn't have much to lose. 

If you want to focus solely on crime, there's enough of that in here to satisfy, but if you're looking for genuinely good writing that focuses on inner lives and makes the outer landscape a part of the story, you'll find that here as well. This book is so well done. Even when it lags it's good, as you get an honest feel for the  people and the place before the next jarring event happens, sometimes out of nowhere.  This is a book that definitely won't be for everyone, but I really liked it and I'd be happy to read anything this author writes in the future.


  1. Skimmed the review - as it is another one that sits on the pile waiting. Read enough to see that you liked it though. Too many books and not enough time!

    1. I like the way he writes. The crime is there, but he's all about the inner self. I like that even better.


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