What would you do if you were bagman for a New Orleans kingpin and you found out you had lung cancer. And what if your boss started sleeping with your girl? He then sends you on a mission to shake down some loser across town, but tells you not to take your gun. Pretty suspicious, eh?
In Nic Pizzolatto’s beautifully written Galveston, Roy Cady is just such a bagman. So, before setting off he conceals a knife in his sleeve. Just as he half expects, when he gets there all hell breaks loose. His companion – another gangland toughguy who’s a little drunk – is killed almost instantly when they’re attacked by three men. A prostitute lies dead, and another is panicking in the corner. The women were probably been sent to distract the kingpin’s other target, who’s now also dead. In a moment of violent lucidity, brought on perhaps by his mortal fear of cancer, Cady ends the fight with extreme violence and accuracy. He kills the ninja-like assailants in a matter of seconds and rescues the girl.
Her name is Rocky and they jump into his truck and make their escape. Back at his trailer he grabs his gun, some ammo, and his false plates. They drive west. Nicknamed Big Country – because he’s big and from the country – he heads for Texas with one eye glued to his rear view mirror. It just happens that Rocky, who’s younger and more naive than expected, is also from the Lone Star State.
They roll through her home town and stop by the shack that was once her home. Cady waits in the truck while she goes in. A gunshot rings out and Rocky comes dashing out again with a three-year-old in tow and a story about how she only fired to scare her mean old step-father. They head down to Galveston, the oil-town-cum-beach-resort on the Gulf Coast of Texas where they hole up in a motel. It’s 1987 and from now on they’ll always looking over their shoulders.
In places, the story jumps forward 20 years and Cady now haunts another Gulf Coast town, working as a handyman at a small motel. He’s beaten the cancer, is fighting alcohol addiction, but hasn’t been to jail for quite a few years now. One thing he can’t seem to get out of his system are his memories of Rocky and the little girl, Tiffany. When a tough looking man arrives and starts asking about Cady’s whereabouts, he’s terrified that his past has finally caught up with him. In Shakespearean fashion, Pizzolatto has a hurricane heading towards the town just as the book reaches its crescendo.
If it were more brutally written, Galveston could certainly be classed as pulp noir. However, Pizzolatto’s prose is incredibly poetic and he drills deeply into his characters. Cady talks about his fears and failures, his anguish over what to do next, and then describes the surf and the sunset in detail. He wants to help Rocky find an honest job and get back on her feet. Equally, his loner’s instinct says: ‘dust your hands of them and move on’. With the cancer, he feels his life is ending and tries to come to terms with the loves he’s lost, rather than the men he’s killed. But his old skills haven’t left him, and he might need to turn back to crime to save Rocky and her sister, and find a little salvation for his own soul too.
Nic Pizzolatto wrote the screenplay for the hit series True Detective, and wonderful though that show may be, Galveston is another beast altogether. It’s an excellent example of Southern noir in paper form. Intense, and character driven, this isn’t about murder and mystery so much as fate and fear. The author’s use of language is wonderful and the atmosphere he generates is just as captivating as his downtrodden characters. This isn’t the south of oil wealth, college football, Cadillacs and sticky cocktails. Here it’s poverty, substance abuse, sweat stains, mosquitos and broken dreams. There are some neat little nods towards other greats of Southern noir here too. Maybe he’s called Cady after Max Cady in Cape Fear, and here and there he goes by the alias Mr Robicheaux, which might well be in homage to James Lee Burke.
Galveston was originally published in 2010 in the US, but has been reprinted by Sphere in the UK this year.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars