Interlude 2: True Detective and Galveston

6 May

(Not a poem, and I kind of wish it were.)

During the True Detective hullabaloo, a lot of people were looking for ciphers to the show, texts that could explain what it meant, what Pizzoloto was up to, what the references to old horror fiction were doing in a police procedural. Some people suggested Robert Chambers; some suggested Ambrose Bierce or Thomas Ligotti; but the true key text was Pizzaloto’s own first novel, Galveston.

Galveston follows Cody, a hard-living, none too bright ne’er do well through a fallout with his low-rent crime boss, a man names Pritz. Cody’s double-crossed and ends up on the run with a teenage prostitute and a small child. He seeks refuge in a cheap motel on the Texas Gulf Coast and waits.

And waits. And drinks. And waits.

Let me start by saying, it isn’t great. In fact, it was a pretty big disappointment. It’s thin; it’s a bit one-note; it’s predictable; it feels undercooked; and there aren’t enough characters.

But as a precursor to Detective, it’s intriguing.

Pizzoloto uses the same split narrative device, telling the story out of order. Cody is 40, now he’s 55, now he’s 40 again. (This same device is what made Detective so compelling, only here there is none of the self-delusion or burgeoning sartorial self-awareness.)

The heat. The south. Women on the fringe preyed upon by an uncaring society. Even intimations of Satan worship, secret societies. Also the logic of crime fiction—always inexorable, always inevitable, always pre-determined—at work. Old sins come back to find you.

Don't believe the blurbs or the hype. Merely okay.

Don’t believe the blurbs or the hype. Merely okay.

What Pizzoloto does differently is shift the old crimes into something akin to old virtues. Your basic decency will find you out.

Which is the big message[1] of Detective, despite the grim tone and dark theatrics: given enough time, your heroics will emerge.

Redemption is just ten years around the corner. Isn’t that what the show is saying, as Harrelson and McConaughey stumble off under a canopy of brave stars?

It’s in stark contrast to the main lessons of crime fiction, which at its core is a fatalistic, deterministic genre of literature with a series of interlocking messages drilled into readers’ heads over and over: there are no clean getaways; nobody gets away with anything; you will pay for your sins; if you are poor, you’ll stay poor; and behind every rich man there’s a crime.

Or, to put it more succinctly: you. can’t. win.

There are many strands to crime fiction, but the roots of it are in the Great Depression and the post-war years. The high practitioners of the genre—James Cain, David Goodis, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson[2], James Ellroy, Ross McDonald and James Crumley to name a few—all understand the doomy loss of innocence and the necessity to persevere. It isn’t enough for the characters to give in to entropy and decay; the genre is already too disgusted with the vile grotesqueries of the world to do this. Stoicism and violence are only part of the genre’s magic. Outrage, barely contained on the page, this is yet another.

Pizzolatto is young and hungry. His first novel lacks the elegance of half of the above list, and the hard-earned, easy brutality[3] of the rest. He has very little of the outrage. (Detective, in contrast, has an overabundance.)

Galveston isn’t bad. But I’ve seen Cody before, so many times, in crime fiction. He brings to little that’s new to a genre that has so many great novels already within it. (My God, The Twenty Year Death came out last year, and Hawthorne & Child, too.) The book is humorless. The stoicism is exhausting. There’s something shaggy and indistinct about the whole affair. I felt like I was reading the middle book of a trilogy. The writing is good, but it lacks that electricity, the gasoline, the holy fire that keeps me thrilled with the written word.

Here’s a sample:

“Certain experiences you can’t survive, and afterward you don’t fully exist, even if you failed to die. Everything that happened in May of 1987 is still happening, only now it’s twenty years later, and what happened is just a story. In 2008, I’m walking my dog on the beach. Trying to. I can’t walk fast or well.”

Which loops me back to True Detective, and gives us the bedrock normality of the show. Pizzolatto isn’t a visionary, he’s a devotee of a very specific genre. And he has talent—some of McConaughey’s speeches are dynamite—but he lucked out, with the cast, with the director, with HBO.

We’ll see what he comes up with next season. Or in the film version of this oh so very middling novel.




[1] I should know; I watched the mofo twice.

[2] He actually doesn’t fit in with this list, but what the hell, he rules.

[3] Hammett was a Pinkerton.


2 Responses to “Interlude 2: True Detective and Galveston”


  1. Interlude 3: The academic novel. | simoneandthesilversurfer - May 9, 2014

    […] recently finished Nic Pizzolato’s (writer and producer of True Detective) Galveston. It won awards. It sold boatloads. It’s good but not great. See point 21 […]

  2. Books I read in 2014. | simoneandthesilversurfer - January 5, 2015

    […] Galveston—After True Detective, (reference) I rushed out to read Pizzolotto’s novel. I needn’t have bothered; the things that made Detective fantastic—the darkness, the narrative trickery, the high weirdness and occultic ambiguity—are all missing from this crime novel that is pretty run of the mill. […]

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