I don’t know what happened to Nic Pizzolatto, but I’m sorry about it.
This is the most distressing novel I’ve ever read. I don’t mean it’s the most violent, although there is some gut-churningly intense violence. I mean the effect of reading this novel is that of having a heavy weight of despair slowly suffocate you. By the end, I was emotionally exhausted and long since ready for it to be over.
That’s not such a far cry from Pizzolato’s more well-known work, HBO’s True Detective, which airs the final episode of its first season on Sunday. That show might be the finest mystery drama I’ve experienced in any medium. It features a tangled mystery at its core, but with a bleak, bizarre, and disjointed telling of that mystery. True Detective’s characters are outstanding, simultaneously unlikeable wrecks of humanity, and fascinating, magnetic alter-heroes boasting a uniqueness rarely seen in a police procedural.
While Galveston has a few of the same tics, and a lot of similarly great prose, as True Detective, its premise isn’t nearly as captivating and its ending is more devastating than satisfying or anything else.
Galveston follows Roy Cady, a nuanced, scarred man who works as a heavy for a ruthless New Orleans mob boss named Stan Titco. Roy has just found out that he has lung cancer when Stan, for reasons that never become clear, sends Roy and his partner into an ambush, to be killed by an enemy gang. Through a combination of luck and skill, Roy survives, along with a teenage prostitute named Rocky.
Together Roy and Rocky take off for California, stopping along the way for Rocky’s young sister, who’s been staying with her abusive stepfather. Roy begins to take a shine to Rocky, and wants to protect her and her sister. Rocky’s self-destructive instincts threaten to win out over her better judgment and capsize the entire enterprise.
Interspersed with this is a different storyline, following Roy many years in the future, playing with a dog and preparing for a hurricane in Galveston. He’s been through hell. He describes a thousand kinds of pain he has, and his trouble walking and doing just about anything.
From those scenes in the future, we know at the very beginning of the story that a) Roy survives his cancer, and b) something goes very bad for Roy and nearly kills him. That largely reduces the present storyline to by-the-way scenes of Roy and Rocky having small-time fights, or learning to get along, all while their doom hovers over them, waiting to drop.
If you’ve seen True Detective, you might recognize the “future time when everything’s gone to hell” trope. The difference is that the past timeline in True Detective has a literal mystery in it. We know how Marty and Rust wind up, but we don’t know what brings them to that fate. In Galveston, there are far fewer different possibilities for how Roy will come to his fate, and in fact, Pizzolatto picks the simplest and most devastating of those few options.
All in all, Galveston is an interesting insight into how Pizzolatto formed his taste and his style, and it’s a great piece of character work, but it is not a fun book to read.
There is room here to debate the merits of disliking books because they are not fun to read. Dennis Lehane, in his review of Galveston, raved about it, “because “Galveston” empathizes with its characters to a degree I’m hard pressed to recall in another recent novel.” He ranks it above an unnamed Thomas Pynchon novel (probably Inherent Vice) and an unnamed Denis Johnson book (probably Nobody Move), saying that both were condescending and voyeuristic in their treatment of the genre.
Leaving aside that Inherent Vice isn’t really noir (it’s closer to the Coen brothers than Dashiell Hammett)—and that Dennis Lehane himself is the author I would rank last of all these options—I would agree that Pizzolatto possesses an extraordinary talent for empathy with his characters. But there is some life-affirming piece missing, and I personally need that piece in order not to shut down completely.
I also have the advantage, over Lehane, of seeing True Detective, and seeing what Pizzolatto’s full talent looks like. This novel is no match for the show.