Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Nic Pizzolatto: Galveston

Mullets and the mob. Glocks and g-strings and the Gulf Coast circa 1987. This is the world of Nic Pizzolatto’s first novel, Galveston. At its center are Roy Cady, an aging mob lackey, and Rocky Arceneaux, a newbie hooker with a past that cinches your gut. After a shoot-out in New Orleans, Roy and Rocky hit the road for East Texas, where Roy takes on yet another young charge: Rocky’s three-year old sister. This unlikely trio rolls into a Galveston motel, looking for a little tranquility where “the sun in the morning charged the sky with hysterical colors, green and purple and hot reds and oranges, unreal, the clouds of the old MGM westerns.” This is a novel, though, in which characters wear their pasts like straight-jackets, in which hopelessness finds violent expression. In short, tranquility is hard to find.

Pizzolatto’s prose is sleek and fast and perfectly tuned to the cracked-asphalt, kudzu-choked world of his characters. Roy Cady’s got a debilitating case of alcoholism and nostalgia—self-destructive tendencies that call to mind traditional noir protagonists. Rocky should be a Taryn Manning Hustle & Flow cliché, but each time I found myself about to label her, she reformed, like mercury, into something complex and a little wondrous.

A third of the way in, the novel weaves in another narrative strand. Roy’s twenty years older, but still in Galveston, in an extended stay motel, as Hurricane Ike twists towards Texas. It’s in these retrospective chapters that the swell of Galveston’s spirit can truly be felt. Roy Cady gains depth here as the vast reach of his regrets becomes clear. The already murky border between past and present dissolves, the language slows, and Roy Cady begins to echo that most heartbreaking of all alcoholic protagonists: Geoffrey Firmin of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. (As Roy admits, “Drinking myself to death in Mexico held some attraction.”)

It was invigorating to read a novel whose prose seemed always in service of story, but at times, Pizzolatto’s imagery staled. There are dozens of rattling a.c. units, crumbling parking lots, and water-stained ceilings; cigarettes are always “unfurling” smoke. And while this relentless repetition may be part of Pizzolatto’s point—Roy is aware of the clichés of his world—it felt more like the author relying on the largest common denominator language-wise. These lapses are hard to nitpick, though, especially given the power of the novel’s final pages.

Nic Pizzolatto’s work has been published in the Atlantic, Oxford American, Iowa Review, Missouri Review, and other magazines. He’s been a finalist for the National Magazine Award, and his collection of stories Between Here and the Yellow Sea was named by Poets & Writers as a top five fiction deput of 2008. Galveston is a finalist for the 2010 Barnes & Noble Discover Prize and for the 2010 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Nic Pizzolatto
Scribner, 2010