Anyone who has already seen Nic Pizzolatto’s stunning HBO series True Detective – starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson – would expect his first novel to reflect many of the same high standards in story-telling. Well if one thing is for sure, it’s that with hauntingly beautiful prose, thrilling characters and an immersive Texas setting – Galveston does not disappoint.
This is a tale about low-rent people, about cancer, seedy bars, prostitution and murder, lives somehow made bright with flowing prose and rippling tension. There is something about the distinctly Southern atmosphere and brittle characters – each resigned to their fate – that makes avoiding empathy impossible and this book the cliché ‘unputdownable’ at times.
In Louisiana, Roy Cady is a ‘bagman’ with a beard, long hair and cowboy boots, known ‘without affection’ as ‘Big Country’. On the same day as discovering he has a terminal illness; Roy is set-up by his boss, a loan-sharking bar-owner who wants him out of the picture. Suffice to say, things do not end well for Roy’s would-be-killers during their ambush and before he makes his getaway, he discovers a frightened young women with defiant eyes in the same apartment. Roy makes the ill-fated decision to take Raquel Arceneau, or ‘Rocky’, with him on his escape to Galveston, Texas.
A prostitute, tough-skinned and too sexy – Rocky is trouble waiting to happen. With her and her 3-year-old sister in tow, Roy heads to a bleak landscape of no-hope; Galveston’s fleabag hotels and country-western bars. As it becomes more apparent the trio are further away from safety than ever and with death just a car-length behind, Roy discovers a fate he thought was inevitable, will first be damaged by Rocky’s past – it turns out she’s a girl with quite a story to tell.
If this book had a motto, it would be ‘things are not as bad as they seem in this broken and desolate world, they are ten times worse’. Although early scenes pass-by in a blur of straight-talking and tough-guy antics, by the time the trio hit the road, Pizzolatto’s imagery has you devouring page after page. This isn’t a novel for the faint-hearted; it’s gritty, unapologetically murky and has more mystery than a Murder She Wrote omnibus.
It comes as no surprise that this novel has already won the Prix du Premier Roman Best First Novel and Spur Award Best First Novel awards and was a finalist for both the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and Barnes and Noble Discover Prize; it is a superb read for avid crime noir readers and undoubtedly stands up to the literary test. Though Galveston drip-feeds us snippets of story, shifts through time to steadily reveal more about Roy and by all accounts holds its cards close to the chest – the ending really is a fitting reward for our time.
Although Roy and Rocky exist within a cruel world, they often exhibit an emotional responsibility towards near-strangers; a trait that makes them infinitely more convoluted, and by extension, more believable to us as readers. We can all relate to the past circling around to govern our decisions in the present and although patience is required during the novel’s middle section, the predominant themes of ‘every action having a consequence’ and ‘human frailty’ strike during important scenes.
If you’re still sitting on the fence, let me end by saying this novel takes the dismal story of Roy Cady; a ‘bad man’ with a snow flurry of cancer and a spring-loaded stiletto strapped to his forearm and illuminates it in the most darkly majestic way. Most will see the name Pizzolatto and immediately assume this to be True Detective in book-form, but let me stop you right there – this is so much more. Yes, the stunning snapshots of hazy imagery which make that breakout series such a triumph are present, but so are poetic flourishes and a story dictated not by dialogue, but by the isolation of ashed-out hopes.