Galveston is the story of Roy Cady, self-proclaimed ‘bagman’ for a New Orleans crime lord. Still reeling from a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, Cady is sent on a job which he suspects is a suicide mission – payback for having slept with his employer’s new girlfriend. So it proves, but Cady escapes with his life and goes on the run with Rocky, a young woman who also survives the carnage. Both are from Texas, and after collecting Rocky’s baby sister they head for the coastal town of Galveston, where a run-down motel provides them with temporary shelter and refuge.
Cady is a gripping narrator – by turns dangerous and melancholy, murderous and pathetic. A violent, unpredictable man, both the cancer and Cady’s brush with death steer him towards a re-examination of his past, through which we learn something about how his life became set on its current course. Cady is a man fighting to stay in control of his baser urges, not always successfully – sometimes experiencing ‘the murky horror that comes with certain hangovers, where you wonder what exactly you’ve been up to, what tickets you’ve written.‘
It is memories of a past love affair that draw Cady to Galveston, and in the present his flowering relationship with Rocky is well handled, with a simmering sexual tension that Pizzolatto wisely keeps unconsummated, and more intriguing. This – romance? – suggests in the ageing Cady an increasing desire for a more settled, more conventional life. In this respect he reminded me of The Last Good Kiss‘s C.W. Sughrue and Jack Taylor who (in Ken Bruen’s The Killing of the Tinkers) yearns to be different: ‘To sit in the warmth of family and just be easy.’ No such luck for either of these men, and certainly not for Cady, who has difficulty reconciling this urge with a violent and angry past.
Nowhere is this dissonance more starkly drawn than when – in one particularly ill-judged and drunken instance – Cady tracks down and visits the woman he loved in Galveston. She is now married, comfortable, and in possession of all of those things that Cady yearns for. She also has some very different memories of their time together, a past much less happy than it first seems. ‘You remember what you want,’ she corrects Cady. ‘I remember you coming home with your shirt bloody. Asking me to hide a gun. You’d sober up for a week and start talking about being different. Then you were drunk again for three weeks straight. You made it so I couldn’t be around you without being shit-faced… You were jealous of everything, Roy. You were resentful. You resented other people being happy. I remember thinking, This is the most frightened man I ever met.’ Or perhaps not. There’s plenty more fear to come, and Galveston builds to a terrifying, shattering climax, where much of what Cady has come to value is torn from him.
Amongst the violence there’s some beautiful writing in the book, all of it built with a simplicity that befits Cady’s character. The girlfriend responsible for Cady’s botched execution reminds him ‘of the empty glass of a swallowed cocktail, and at the heart of the empty glass was a smashed lime rind on ice.’ Later, he describes a solitary night-time walk, where ‘the clunk of my boots sounded like a clock’s hand.’ And, in a corresponding line, ‘The clock’s ticking sounded like a woman in heels walking at a very slow and relentless pace across a marble floor.’
I’ve still yet to catch Pizzolatto’s TV series ‘True Detective’, about which I’ve heard some remarkable things. It’s one of the reasons why I picked Galveston up in the first place – and the book, in turn, is one more rock on the cairn of reasons to see the TV show. If it can take as emotional, as yearning a route through some well-used noir stereotypes as Galveston does, it deserves all the praise heaped upon it. And then some.