Saturday, July 17, 2010

An Awesome Debut Novel

Book Reviewed: Galveston, by Nic Pizzolatto

Warning: I may be just a tiny bit biased when it comes to this book. Pizzolatto is a writing professor at my alma mater, and I was a senior when it was announced that this book, his first novel, was bought by Scribner. So, admittedly, I might have given this book extra points just for that fact. But frankly, this book is good enough on its own that it doesn't really need those extra points anyway.

Galveston has been praised as a return to the noir genre. Its about criminals and violence and secrets. But it's also about living and dying, burying emotion and finding salvation in unexpected places. The narrator, Roy Cady, works for a criminal organization when he finds out he has a fatal illness at the age of 40. When he goes out for a job, he realizes he's been trapped by his own people. He manages to escape, but he gets saddled with an 18-year-old prostitute named Rocky and, eventually, her toddler sister. They try to hide out on the Texas gulf coast, but both their pasts catch up with them pretty quickly, leaving all kinds of damage in the end.

Roy is a really interesting narrator, and Pizzolatto does him a great service by giving him two "jobs": providing the action as the protagonist AND telling the tragic story of the girls he's protecting. Maybe the best thing about Roy, though, is how he manages to be both sympathetic and terrifying at the same time. He's extremely violent and dangerous, not afraid to kill or maim to get at what he needs. Yet, by the end, you can't hate him because you see the toll his lifestyle has taken on his humanity.

Meanwhile, Rocky is a complex female character, something you don't always get in a crime story like this. I expected to hate her when I met her, and I doubted Pizzolatto's ability to make her more than just a boring woman-in-peril catalyst. But as the book goes on, she takes on all kinds of new depths, and Pizzolatto makes her act exactly her age: a child and an adult simultaneously. Her story arc goes along quite nicely with Roy's.

If I had not known anything about Nic Pizzolatto or had never had a conversation with him before, I never would have guessed this was a first book by a young author. It's so well written (really, the writing just gets more and more wonderful as the book goes on) and tight that it feels like the work of someone who's been publishing novels for decades. However, I guess this shouldn't surprise me. At my alma mater, Pizzolatto is famous for his intensity. The man is quite a perfectionist when it comes to his writing. I can only imagine the kind of blood, sweat, and tears that went into making this book.

So overall, if you're looking to discover a new writer, I'd highly recommend trying out Pizzolatto and Galveston. It's a fantastic debut with a very satisfying and bittersweet ending (and, of course, a killer last sentence). And if you like that, I'd also recommend his beautiful story collection, Between Here and the Yellow Sea. You won't be disappointed.


  1. I forgot to mention how well Pizzolatto uses his setting in this book. He grew up in Louisiana along the Gulf coast, and he obviously knows this world inside and out. I'm a huge fan of writers using places they know so well to develop an extra depth to their work, so his descriptions of the place and its people was very impressive to me.

  2. As much as respect book critics, I rarely find their reviews to exactly match my reading experience. But this NY Times review does my findings on Galveston perfect justice. Enjoy!