by: Douglas Grant
Before there was True Detective, Nic Pizzolatto wrenched us from our comfort zone with Galveston….
“I can’t really say. You know how it is. Some people. Something happens to them. Usually when they’re young. And they never get any better.”
“But some do.”
“I guess. You tend to meet more of the other kind, though.”
Circumstances characterized by extreme violence thrust a man and woman together as they go on the run, hitting the road with such haste that they barely have time to even consider their next move. Both have seen their share of human misery, and now these two strangers are forced to find new meaning to their existences as their harsh lives inevitably become intertwined.
It’s a story we’ve been told many times before, but no one ever told it to us quite like this. This could be said of Nic Pizzolatto’s cerebral series True Detective, and the same can be said of his debut novel, Galveston. The novel is a fictional case study of the individuals who comprise the fringe of Louisianan society, as well as a glimpse at the psyches of characters who will do whatever it takes to survive.
Roy Cady is a man who’s suffered a lifetime’s worth of misfortune before he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. This is right around the time when his former associates make an attempt on his life. The attempt fails, and Roy is forced to flee New Orleans with Rocky, a young woman with an equally checkered past who was unfortunate enough to have been caught in the crossfire. Together they must calculate their next move, all the while questioning whether they should stick together or separate entirely.
Roy is a complex character. Early on we learn that redemption isn’t what he’s after, just survival. Yet from the very beginning we can sense that he has a moral core. He’s committed terrible acts, but he lives his life unapologetically, as if the justification for his misdeeds is implied by the losing hand he’s been dealt. We have no choice but to sympathize with Roy as he tries to find his way through the tenebrous corners of the Deep South. His narration is sobering in his acceptance of the dismal quality of his life. Rocky, too, has known despair in her short time on Earth, and this seems to be the driving force behind the bond she tries to form with Roy. He, in turn, becomes reluctantly protective of her even as he contemplates severing all ties. These are two individuals who’ve spent a lifetime instinctively keeping compassion buried within under the assumption that they’re protecting themselves. Their time together forces them to become introspective, and the result is that they resist their inherent natures by sharing small parts of themselves with each other one piece at a time.
Through Roy’s narration the story jumps back and forth between two decades, and as we close the gap between the then and the now we learn that an older Roy now suffers demons that manifest in the form of haunting recollections, a form of payment for whatever wisdom he’s gained. If the Roy of twenty years ago cannot be said to be confident, he is at the very least unwavering. The Roy of twenty years later doesn’t seem as steady, as if he keeps reimagining how his life might have turned out differently if only he’d made better decisions. Yet at the same time Pizzolatto cleverly refuses to show us a protagonist who is plagued with remorse. Roy is a product of the world he’s been brought up in; if there was another path to be taken then it was never accessible to him.
As stated before, Roy isn’t looking to atone for his sins. The cancer that is slowly killing him deters him from starting over. He knows that he will never have a clean slate, and in turn refuses to change the way in which he deals with his problems. His survival instincts are derived from pure muscle memory. The only glimmer of hope for him is Rocky, but his wishes for her are selfless ones. Sometimes confused by the divide that separates father figure from prospective lover, he knows that it isn’t too late for her; she is young enough for a fresh start, and he would use whatever resources at his disposal toward helping her find a new life for herself. But where the story we’ve all heard before zigs, Pizzolatto zags. As Roy’s narrative unfolds, we the readers will argue with each other over whether Galveston is a predictable novel, and each side of the debate will have valid arguments. This is because the author’s dialogue and character development speak to us with an originality that keeps us second guessing our assertions as we become more immersed in the story, something he did so well with the script of True Detective.
Many of us will read the novel as if we are looking at the characters through a lens. They’ve lived the kinds of lives most of us will never know and have had to live with certain truths that we can hardly begin to comprehend. Conversely, it often seems as if Roy is speaking to us, the readers, as if he knows we can’t relate, could never relate. And he is in no way after our sympathies, nor is he trying to open our eyes to certain realities many of us will refuse to even acknowledge. If nothing else, Roy’s narrative is objective; there is no motivation behind his storytelling other than bringing forth the truth, even when that truth is often more painful than he can bear.
If the characters in Galveston truly are living lives that we can’t relate to—and external circumstances are so dismal that we have to wonder how we’ve kept ourselves so apart from such a world—then why even read the novel? The answer is Pizzolatto’s diction. He does all of the hard work for us by bringing us out of our comfort zones with his words. He presents these lost souls in such a way that our sympathies are almost assumed from the beginning. That’s not to say that he takes the choice away from us; we are all free to commend or condemn depending on our points of view. Rather, Pizzolatto subtly advocates for these characters with his prose, forcing us to ask ourselves what we might do in their situations just as we resign ourselves to the impossibility of finding ourselves in such situations.