Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto
Thriller (2010 - 258 pp.)
A doctor took pictures of my lungs. They were full of snow flurries. (3)
From Nic Pizzolatto, the creator of HBO's True Detective comes his first novel Galveston. The story is told from the voice of Roy "Big Country"* Cady, a mercenary/assassin diagnosed with lung cancer in the book's first two sentences (referenced above). With what he thinks is a short time left to live, and with his old colleague Stan Ptitko determined to make that time even shorter, Roy embarks on a journey that is part-escape, part-revenge. He is accompanied by Rocky, a teenaged prostitute he rescues after the book's opening conflagration, and eventually Rocky's little sister Tiffany. Ironically, Galveston takes place in some of the hottest parts of the Continental United States, yet Roy compares his cancer to snow.
No character in Galveston is particularly lovable, although it's difficult to dislike toddler Tiffany. Roy earns the reader's sympathy through his sardonic humour, extreme levels of pragmatism, lack of regard toward any traditional obligations, and the fact that he isn't any of the other characters. Roy is a cross between the Punisher and someone engaged on a long road trip in the South with unlimited drinks, especially Jack Daniel's, Jim Beam and J&B. When Roy murders people, he always finds a way to paint it either as self-defence (19) or as something that happened so quickly it was the only logical course of action. (234) Roy cares about Rocky and especially Tiffany, and seems genuinely willing to help people in trouble, but is otherwise emotionless about his surroundings, including rejecting Rocky's sexual advances even before he learns Tiffany exists. (44)
The book's main events occur in the late '80s, with the future "present" when Roy tells the story being 2008.** Conveniently, the story occurring in the pre-smartphone era makes characters evade each other more easily. When a character is not physically in front of Roy, the reader has no idea where that character is, or whether he or she is even alive. This sense of disappearance adds to Galveston's mystery; much like in the original Warcraft computer game, when you haven't discovered a piece of land yet, it may as well not exist. Feeling that way in a fantasy world is understandable, but when the hidden place is somewhere as obviously existent^ as the Southern United States, a fog hangs over the entire setting. When Roy leaves his motel room after rejecting a prostitute's advances, continuing his tradition of apathy toward sex, he reflects on how literally in the dark he is about his future: "You steer down lightless highways, and you invent a destination because movement is key." (155) The future Roy finds is as a sixty-two-year-old ex-convict with one eye and a dog, who lives a quieter life than he could have imagined in the '80s.
My one qualm with Galveston is the use of the "knocked unconscious with no lasting damage" trope, which is disproven by science once every few seconds. Any unconsciousness lasting longer than a few seconds has disastrous effects on the neural system,^^ yet Roy's head is treated like a pinata, only for his brain to function normally a couple pages later. (226-228)
Unlike many of the other books I discuss here, Galveston is a blisteringly fast read with a simple story Pizzolatto conveys well. There is very little subtext, obscurity, theorizing, or questioning of what reality means; what you read is what you get.
A personal note: when I lived in Houston briefly on a work assignment, my parents visited me for a weekend. During that weekend, we went to Galveston. It was 2011, the year after Galveston was published. When Roy drives Rocky and Tiffany to the Gulf Coast, lending the reader an idea of how Pizzolatto picked the book's title, he notes the wide-open possibilities envisioned by the drive down the I-45 to Galveston: "Clear of the cities, Texas turned into a green desert meant to hammer you with vastness, a mortar filled with sky. The girls treated it like a fireworks show." (79) While we certainly had a better time there than Roy did, Pizzolatto's descriptions of the Gulf and the beaches took me back there. I might not have picked this book to read if the title didn't bring back those memories.
Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 1
*No resemblance to Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, retired centre for the (as they were then) Vancouver Grizzlies.
**Although I suppose this fact spoils that Roy survives the story, it's impossible to discuss the book's 2008 scenes otherwise.
^The word "existent" is used not nearly as often as its antonym "non-existent". Why, I've never learned. Perhaps things are assumed to be existent unless we hear otherwise.
^^A similar error is made in Richard Matheson's Somewhere in Time, also told from the perspective of someone with terminal cancer.