A long time ago, back in the 40s and the 50s, Jim Thompson eked out a living writing about psychopathic sheriffs, hit men, treacherous women and…more hit men. It was heady stuff.
You ever see the movie The Grifters? (If you haven’t you should. Great movie.) It’s adapted from the Jim Thompson novel of the same title. The Getaway? That’s Jim Thompson too. The Killer Inside Me? (Umm…I wouldn’t go there.) Yep. Jim Thompson.
Now I’m not claiming that Thompson created the genre–the origins of the phrase is cinematic–that was probably James M. Cain with his 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Then there’s Edward Anderson’s stunning novel Thieves Like Us (my personal favorite) published in 1937. Raw and beautiful it’s better than anything Thompson ever wrote.
But, I digress. Thompson was good. Very good. These days, he is probably the best known original gangsta noir writer. You have to have the stomach for him though. He’s brutal. Nihilistic. Sexist.
Nic Pzzolatto writes a lot like him. And a little like Anderson.
Roy Cady is a collector and a sometimes hit man for a mid level Dixie Mafia crew in New Orleans. Recently diagnosed with terminal cancer things get even worse when he runs afoul of the crew by sleeping with his boss’ woman. The fact that she was Roy’s girlfriend first is of no consequence. Roy is small time, as expendable as a paper cup.
But Roy’s not exactly stupid either. And even though he considers his options, he’s not ready to cash in just yet. So when his boss tells him not to bring a gun to a collection–it’s just a little rough up job, if there’s no gun that’s the way it’ll stay–Roy disobeys. That turns out to be a good thing since it’s a set up. (Yeah, duh, but the boss underestimates. Criminals do that. For real.)
Predictably Roy escapes from the hit, but not without baggage. His baggage is filled with about three grand, some ammunition and some incriminating papers on his boss. Oh, and there’s a girl too–a prostitute, naturally, that was supposed to go down with Roy in the hit. Her name is Rocky. Rocky has a four-year-old sister, Tiffany, who comes along too. Where’re they goin’? Galveston, of course.
In Galveston (that’s a Texas gulf port, for those unacquainted) Roy, Rocky and Tiffany take up residence at a rundown motel, called The Emerald Shores, on the grungy, non-touristy side of town. Still it’s in walking distance of the beach, so there’s that.
Have you ever wondered about these places? About who stays in them? Well, Pizzolotto clues us in.
Let’s see…there’s Nancy, the manger of the place, an older sun cured, hard-ass with a soft spot for Tiffany. There are two elderly sisters, devout Catholics who are touring around the country and have stopped off at The Emerald Shores indefinitely. (Yeah, I know…but they’re on a fixed income so that makes sense–kind of.) There’s a transient family who’s schlubby head of household guzzles beer, starves his children and beats his woebegone wife. And then there’s the junkie burglar Tray, a younger, scrawnier version of Roy minus the Dixie Mafia who has eyes for Rocky–and Roy.
This is all pretty standard stuff. Pizzalotto keeps it straight in the genre’s lane. It’s well written enough. The plot makes sense. It’s fast paced and intense…But is it special?
Dennis Lehane–one of my favorite authors–writes of Galveston, “It’s filled with so much drop-dead-gorgeous writing that I felt authentic envy while reading it.” Umm…I wouldn’t go that far, at least not for the first one hundred fifty pages. (Keep in mind there’s only about another hundred to go.)
Then around page one fifty-five or so Pizzalotto writes this: A runaway. She wouldn’t be doing this long, between the pimps and psychos and cops. I pulled out my flask and took a hit, passed it to her. We watched the men moving around the pumps and the occasional woman step down from one of the parked rigs. A lot of times they run off and don’t understand where they are. Then they run back home, if they can. But it’s too late.
This is where it gets good. Where it gets Jim Thompson.
You see that’s the thing about noir fiction. It’s hardcore. It’s the underbelly, the stuff that the butcher lets fall on the floor. The stuff they make hot dogs out of.
Some of us just have a taste for it. That’s all.
It’s different with film noir. The extreme camera angles, the low lighting, the way the rain reflects off the street. A woman’s silhouette. The extended scratch and hiss of a match strike–it’s beautiful. It’s art. Noir adapts to cinema well. People like it.
Anyway, about forty pages later Pizzalotto writes: I felt a mutual recognition. Like he knew something about the big empty fields, the one-room apartments, coffee made on a hot plate, the voice that calls lights out. And for my part I was the only one who understood the terror of where he found himself at the end of everything, in that alley with me.
This is where it gets special. Where I began to care. And where Pizzalotto earns Lehane’s praise–almost.
It’s a rare thing in noir fiction for an author to scratch the surface of sentiment and stay legit. That’s why I admire Edward Anderson so much, his Thieves Like Us satisfied my proclivity and made me cry.
Let me make myself clear–Nic Pizzalotto is no Edward Anderson. He’s no James M. Cain or Dorthy B. Hughes either. He is a good writer. He wrote the screenplay for True Detective season one single handedly. It’s a masterpiece.
He also wrote season two. (Oh well, stuff happens.)
Galveston the movie–screenplay written by Nic Pizzalotto–has received mixed reviews at Austin’s storied SXSW Film Festival. I’ll wait for it to show up on Netflix.
I’m lookin’ forward to it.