Gary and Linda have moved to a modest property in Sacramento after Linda’s miscarriage. They are an everyday married couple; she works for the government as a clerk and he works at an air conditioning supply depot. She wants him to quit smoking and they like watching TV together before bed. If you are waiting for the other shoe to drop, for a dark family secret or a double life to be revealed, you’ll have a long wait. Pitts hasn’t foregone his stories of working class struggle and small crime to write a domestic noir. In fact, the enduring power of a simple, loving relationship between two people is one of the themes of this novel.
Rather, this is a thriller, and a superior example, of the type in which ordinary people have their lives imperilled by events out of their control. The first sign that things are going to change is when Gary notices lights on in his neighbour’s empty house. Curiosity turns to concern after Gary’s first meeting with the new occupants – a group of young adults that the couple at first think might be squatters. In fact, they will turn out to be much worse.
Jason is the leader of the group, and the most dangerous; a recidivist, an addict and violent, volatile and impulsive. He’s an emerging psychopath created by a childhood which is the polar opposite to that Gary and Linda would have gifted their child. He grew up rich but unloved, his father is cruel and indifferent and his mother distant and unwell.
He’s gathered around him three other damaged souls of varying degrees. There is his girlfriend, Juilet; the simple thug Bomber; and the youngest of the group is Russell, perhaps the only one who can still be redeemed. As with other psychopaths, Jason draws others into the chaos of his life, indifferent to their suffering. Gary and Linda are just his latest victims.
Tensions between the two sets of neighbours escalate, driven remotely by Jason’s dysfunctional relationship with his father and the intervention of a Hollywood ‘fixer’ until Linda is taken. The story moves across Southern California, as it reaches its climax, from the quiet of suburban Sacramento to truck stops and late-night diners on the State’s highways, ending up in the palatial residences of Hollywood. The author provides us with two thrilling climaxes, the first a gun battle and then a psychodrama at Jason’s family home.
Tom Pitts has always had an affinity for writing blue collar and young characters, and true to form his depiction of the four kids and of Gary and Linda is stronger than that Jason’s father and his lawyer come intermediary. Jason, in particular, benefits from the author’s attention. His formative childhood experiences are relayed at the start of his chapter and illustrate vividly why he has grown up damaged. They allowed me to feel some empathy for an antagonist with few redeeming qualities.
My highlight was the depiction of Gary and Linda; unremarkable as individuals perhaps, but Pitts shows us a nuanced portrayal of love, enduring through the mundanity of everyday life, but also providing strength during adversity.
Coldwater might lack the seedy excitement of Hustle, one of my picks for 2014, but its quiet portrayal of the strength and dignity of love makes it well worth your time and money.
Down & Out Books
CFL Rating: 4 Stars