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"The Past Isn't Real": Pizzolatto's Galveston and True Detective

So with True Detective's final episode fast approaching, I decided to track down series mastermind Nic Pizzolatto's debut novel, Galveston. Published in 2010, it received a number of accolades, including praise from Dennis Lehane and Chuck Hogan, and was a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. But like so many critically acclaimed books, it failed to find a wide audience and had slipped into obscurity over the past few years. The popularity of Pizzolatto's show seems to have rectified that situation, however, as Galveston is back in print, with a "from the creator of True Detective" label slapped on the cover. (And yes, a movie version is in the works.)


On the surface, there isn't a whole lot of similarity between the two works. True Detective is a sprawling, eight hour crime saga about two flawed but basically heroic cops. Galveston is a relatively short, intimate novel (250 pages) about an ex-mob enforcer who, while initially sympathetic, frequently behaves in ways that remind us that his career choice was not a tragic error but something that he was good at, probably enjoyed doing, and was likely genetically predisposed to do. There are some very bad guys in both, but the villains in Galveston are pretty much traditional gangsters who likely wouldn't stand for occult activities in the swamp, and would probably opt out for standard acts of rape, murder, and garden variety sadism. But without revealing too much of the novel's plot, there are significant parallels between True Detective and Galveston, which anticipates several aspects and themes of Pizzolatto's later opus.

1. The (Non) Passage of Time. Galveston, like True Detective, is split into two narrative tracks in the same general geographical area, both taking place in and around the island city of Galveston, Texas. (Which, coincidentally, is where I grew up in the '70s and '80s. It is a profoundly Gothic place; Lovecraft would have enjoyed visiting there.) The main track is set in 1987, when our antihero, Roy Cady, has fled New Orleans after narrowly surviving an attempt on his life from his former employers. In the process of escaping, he finds his fate entangled with a disturbed young woman, Rocky, barely out of her teens, and her much younger sister, Tiffany, scarcely past toddlerhood. The three of them travel to Galveston, where they find refuge in a fleabag motel and try to make a new life for themselves, but for Roy and Rocky, old vices and temptations are hard to avoid.

The secondary track is set twenty-one years later, in 2008, when Roy is in his sixties and lives alone in Galveston with his dog, a solitary beachcomber with no real friends. Neither Rocky nor Tiffany are anywhere to be seen. Like Cohle in True Detective circa 2012, he's clearly done a lot of hard living in the interim, and earns a modest living by doing odd jobs for his boss/landlord. Also like Cohle, Roy has developed an existential coping method for dealing with the passage of time, but where Cohle takes a fatalistic, Eternal Return-type attitude towards causality supported by his readings in philosophy and quantum physics, the more down-to-Earth Roy has a simpler mantra: "The past isn't real." Time isn't a flat circle in which everything happens at once, there's only the present moment, and anything bad or good that happened to you before is just an illusion. (It should be noted that both men, however, are fond of cutting up beer cans to make little aluminum men, though Roy favors Miller High Life.)


2. The Evil That Men Do, Mostly To Women. As in True Detective, most of the women in Galveston are victims, or potential victims, of men. (Both bring to mind Louis CK's routine about how women are right to feel totally ambivalent about dating members of the opposite sex.) Sexually abused as a teenager, Rocky has turned to prostitution because she can't see her own self-worth in any other terms; she could easily have ended up in the same situation as Beth, or Dora Lange. We see constant reminders that this is a world in which it is taken for granted that men will cheat on their spouses or subject them to mental and physical abuse, or that girls will turn tricks for a living because they have no other alternatives (or believe that there are no other choices). One of the few stable, healthy female characters we meet in the book is Roy's ex-girlfriend, Loraine, who reminds me quite a bit of Maggie. (It's a sign of her mental fortitude and overall self-esteem that she won't have anything to do with him.) As the 1987 track progresses, Roy becomes obsessed with protecting Tiffany's innocence and ensuring that she has a normal life, but in his world innocence comes with a price.

3. The Sacrificial Landscape. Both True Detective and Galveston can be classified as Southern Noir, a genre broad enough to include literary icons like Faulkner, McCarthy, and James Dickey, horror writers like Caitlin Kiernan and Poppy Z. Brite (as well as Alan Moore's Swamp Thing), and crime novelists like Joe R. Lansdale and James Lee Burke. (Roy's surname is likely a nod to Max Cady, the villain of Florida crime writer John D. MacDonald's The Executioners, which was filmed twice as Cape Fear.) What links all these authors to Pizzolato is the primary significance of the environment. Unlike the traditional noirs, which tend to be set around big cities like New York or L.A., nature is omnipresent, vital and all-devouring, even in the face of human industry. There's the overriding sense that, if these places had to be abandoned (as in Jeff Vandermeer's "Southern Reach" trilogy), within a generation all signs of civilization would be reabsorbed into the landscape. In True Detective, the Yellow King cult's activities take place mostly in liminal spaces, old rotten churches or schools that are slowly but surely disintegrating; they also like to act in the absence of social order, during the aftermaths of natural disasters. In the 2008 sections of Galveston, Hurricane Ike is bearing down on the island, putting all the characters' achievements in stark relief. As Alexis Madrigal points out in a terrific piece at the Atlantic, there's the sense, in Pizzolatto's words, that the apocalypse has already happened, and that parts of the world must die and be transformed into "sacrificial landscapes" in order that the rest may live and thrive, for good or for ill. The characters' struggles are simply a smaller version of the larger, more cosmic forces operating at the macro level.


If you like True Detective, you should definitely give Galveston a shot. It's a short, but really satisfying novel, and its conclusion gives me hope that Pizzolatto is not gonna mess up the show's finale.

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