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.