Strange Gifts

True Detective

Of all the great “novelistic” television shows we’ve seen over the last fifteen years, it’s interesting that only one–HBO’s current breakout hit, True Detective–was created by a novelist.

Nic Pizzolatto was born in New Orleans, raised in Lake Charles, and educated at both the University of Arkansas and Louisiana State University. He taught literature and writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Chicago, and DePauw University. The first short story he ever wrote was “Ghost Birds,” an eerie tale of love, BASE jumping, and the way of the samurai. Pizzolatto sold it to the Atlantic Monthly, along with one other story, at the age of 25. It’s the opening piece in Between Here and the Yellow Sea, Pizzolatto’s book of short stories.

You can hear foretokens of True Detective’s Rust Cohle in the narrator of that story, who speaks in that same blend of worldly competence and metaphysical insight. Here, in a skydiving scene: “At 12,500 feet a jump doesn’t even feel like falling–more like being at the center of a cold explosion.” And just a little later: “Skydiving doesn’t compare to BASE. Out of a plane you’re too high and have no real sense of the bottom. Mu, the void, is not so immediate.” Mu, the narrator explains, is “the emptiness at the heart of existence to which everything returns.” It’s a place the narrator longs for–part of the reason why he BASE jumps, and part of the reason why he meditates, seeking “the Blue Triangle,” where he stores his “egoless self.”

You’ll recognize these same obsessions at the heart of True Detective, and if True Detective seems so startling, perhaps it’s because the show is not essentially sociological (like The Wire) or psychological (like The Sopranos or Mad Men), but philosophical–a grand treatise on the nature of human souls, hiding inside a murder mystery.

GalvestonThis same method drives Galveston, Pizzolatto’s first and only novel to date. Galveston is one of those rare books eligible for dual-citizenship in both the “Crime Thriller” and “Literary Fiction” sections of the library. The narrator, Roy Cady, (who you might notice shares initials with Rust Cohle) is a contract killer for a New Orleans gangster. When the novel begins, he’s been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He’s also gotten crosswise with his boss over a woman. The results of that impasse are about what you’d expect, and Roy finds himself needing to make a run for it. For reasons I won’t spoil, he takes along a young prostitute named Raquel (“Rocky”). They pick up another passenger (again, I’ll be vague, out of spoiler consideration) and everyone heads down the Gulf Coast, to Galveston.

Partway through the novel Pizzolatto pulls the rug out (and I will spoil this for you): about 65 pages in, less than 24 hours of novel-time after we’ve learned, with Roy, that his death from lung cancer is imminent, the story jumps ahead. Twenty years. From 1987 to 2008. Roy’s still alive, he’s wearing a patch over his eye, he’s spent more than a decade in prison, he’s living in a motel efficiency, doing oddjobs for the owner, he’s back in Galveston. and a strange man is looking for him. The sources of tension change, become multidimensional. Now we’re not just wondering when Roy’s cancer is going to kill him, or if the bad guys from NOLA are going to catch up with him first. Now we’re wondering: what happened? Why did Roy go to prison? When did he lose that eye? And where’s Rocky? (Something similar happens at the end of True Detective’s first episode, when the audience learns that the 2012 interviews of the former partners aren’t about an old case at all.)

A story that operates in two fixed but distant points in time raises questions of man’s ultimate relationship to time, which raises questions of memory, of knowledge and perception; of personality, of being and becoming; of mortality, age, and loss; and of the search for, or, perhaps more typically and more dreadfully, the overpowering sink into, wisdom.

(Cf. this idea with the name of Rust Cohle’s daughter, Sophia, which is the Attic Greek word for wisdom, and which forms one of the roots of the word “philosophy.” Cf. also this line, from Aeschylus: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”)

Pizzolatto renders these questions in ways you hardly notice, because the story is so well-told. Partway through Galveston, Roy seeks out an old flame, a woman who’s now wealthy and married and living in some high-class Texas suburb. The scene is excruciating. You care about Roy, you know how much stock he puts in the memory of this woman, and of course, an encounter like this just can’t go well. The woman is dismissive, hurried; she tells Roy that he’s aged poorly and doesn’t look nearly as handsome as she had remembered.

But the worst thing the woman says to him is this: “The past isn’t real, Roy.” She repeats it. And the words strike at the center of him, “like a pickax.”

Nic Pizzolatto
Nic Pizzolatto

Roy has three thousand dollars in a box, a bad drinking habit, and an open contract on his head–everything he’s got to show for a lifetime spent at the bottom edge of America’s enormous black market. The things he’s done to earn a living are poison, the source of incurable traumas. (Cf. Rust Cohle’s work as a deep undercover narco.) Roy likes to remind us (and himself) that nobody he’s ever been paid to kill hadn’t done something to earn their death. But he also remembers how they all get the same look in their eyes, when they realize what’s about to happen. It’s a look Roy can sum up in one word: Wait. “That face they always show me–Wait. Wait.”

When his old girlfriend tells Roy “the past isn’t real,” she’s telling him that the best parts of his life–the memories of times before he became what he is, the times he spent happy, the times he spent with her–all those things he holds onto for a little peace and warmth: she’s telling him they don’t exist. They aren’t real. It would be cruel if it weren’t so plainly and literally true. Maybe that’s why it is so cruel.

But later, Roy is sitting with Rocky, and she’s made several confessions to him about all the horrible things she’s had to do to survive, and all the horrible things that have been done to her. And Roy tells her the same thing: “The past isn’t real.” If memories can’t give us a home, then maybe they can’t hurt us, either. It’s a nice sentiment. It’s the sort of thing one would hope to be true, and maybe sometimes it is.

In this setting, that line of dialogue is also the dramatization of a serious philosophical question: To what extent are people’s lives determined by the past, and by forces outside their control? Does free will exist, and do we all have it? Certainly it seems that some have it more than others–Roy’s boss, the gangster, for instance. When Roy asks him why he would put a hit out on him, just over a woman, the gangster says, “Ah. That’s not really it, though. . . . You aren’t exactly key to the enterprise, you know? The thing was: Why not do it? . . . The why is because I fucking say so. The why is I decide.” This is as chilling a rendition of late capitalism’s economic totalitarianism as any I have ever read.

Maybe free will doesn’t exist in a material sense. I might, as Descartes says, have an “infinite will,” but that doesn’t mean I can lift a Chevy over my head. Perhaps it does exist, though, in a spiritual sense. Maybe human beings can override the internals that plague us, let go of the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” But tell that to Rocky, or Roy. Tell that to a cop or a vet with PTSD. “Certain experiences you can’t survive,” Roy says, “and afterward you don’t fully exist, even if you failed to die.”

Airmen conduct search, rescue
Galveston, TX

This is what novels can do: they can make philosophy matter by rendering its problems as the humanly complicated things they are. Novels don’t solve the mysteries of life–they transform them into things that are starker and more difficult, more touchable and yet somehow more elusive, like that “fragment of lost words” that troubled Nick Carraway. Novels remind us that the hard questions matter, they always have, and that we can’t ignore them just because we’re comfortable, well-fed, sheltered, and secure. Maybe those same comforts, which give us time and leisure enough to read novels in the first place, are the very reason why we need them so badly. A great novel is always felt as a kind of gift, and here’s the strange thing: these gifts are heartbreaks we wouldn’t suffer, tears we wouldn’t shed, agonies we wouldn’t undergo, if we simply left the books alone and did something else with our time.

Our need for art, then, is just another mystery–another mystery for art to leave deepened and unsolved.

Brian Ted Jones was born in 1984 and raised in southeastern Oklahoma. He lives with his wife, Jenne, and their sons Oscar and GuyJack. His novella, The Waterbed Salesman, will be published in 2014 by BULL Men’s Fiction.

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