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Onyx reviews: Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 02/07/2014

First, Roy Cady is diagnosed with lung cancer. Then he has to deal with his mobbed up boss, who has recently stolen his girlfriend. Then he's sent on a mission that has warning signs all over. "Don't bring your gun," his boss tells him and his partner in crime. Yeah, right. 

Ron is a bag man. An enforcer who has broken a few arms and legs, and taken a few lives in his day. His father died when he was young and his mother killed herself, so there's that. He's forty years old and had few prospects in life before he found out he was going to die. This sense of fatality empowers him, so when things go bad during the gig, he lashes out and prevails. Of course, that's not going to be the end of it, as far as his boss is concerned. His life in New Orleans isn't worth a plugged nickel, so he hits the road. He takes with him the only other survivor of the warehouse encounter, eighteen-year-old Raquel Areceneaux, never intending for her to end up being a long-time companion.

Roy and Rocky are both from East Texas, but they have little else in common. She is, however, someone he can tell about his cancer. En route to Galveston, Rocky talks Roy into stopping by her step-father's place in Orange, Texas, where she claims to have some money. She returns a gunshot later with little cash. Instead, she brings along her three-year-old sister Tiffany. Roy's clean escape is suddenly complicated.

They end up in a fleabag motel in Galveston, a short walk from the bay. Most of the other residents have shady pasts, too. Even though Rocky makes herself available to Roy, he keeps her at arm's length. Rocky and Tiffany have their own room, and Roy tries to convince her to get a job. He wants her to be independent so he can take off again. The setup may seem cliched—the hardluck guy and the hooker with a heart of gold—but it isn't. Not in this author's capable hands.

At a certain point, Pizzolatto jumps ahead from 1987 to 2008, on the eve of Hurricane Ike. Roy is no longer with Rocky. He's a recovering alcoholic with a bum leg and a missing eye who spent at least half of the intervening years behind bars. There's no sign of his cancer, but someone is looking for him—trouble from his past may have found him again.

This isn't a new book—it was published nearly three years ago—but it has contemporary relevance. Pizzolatto is the creator of the HBO series True Detective. This novel, while vastly different from that series, does have some overlap. Both are set partly in New Orleans, and both feature characters with the bleak worldview of the noir genre. There's even a detail common: Roy and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) both have a habit of cutting tin men out of beer cans.

For a novel that has such a dire perspective—disaster is just waiting for these characters, and Hurricane Ike isn't the worst of it—Galveston is filled with poetry, albeit dark observations about the world and the men and women who inhabit it. Nothing matters but the present: the past doesn't exist, as Roy tells himself and Rocky. The book's sole ember of hope resides in the little girl, Tiffany. Rocky is a somewhat careless mother, but some of the motel's other occupants take a liking to her and mother her. The reason for Rocky's ambivalence gradually becomes clear as the young woman spirals downward into the same hopeless abyss as Roy. Roy attempts to clean the slate with his enemies, but the results are not what he intended. Not in the least.

Is Roy a nice guy? A good guy? He knows what he's done in the past, but he remembers certain times in his life as being rosier than others do. A former girlfriend slaps a reality check on him when he tries to reminisce. She regrets virtually every second they spent together.

Galveston, with its down-at-the-heels protagonist and occasional violent confrontations is reminiscent of the works of George Pelecanos, and its noir sensibility is well aligned with other recent practitioners in the genre. The novel was recently optioned by Hollywood. It won't be a date flick.

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