Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Kind of Face You Shoot: With All My Heart I Hope For the Worst

Currently, Nic Pizzolatto is having his ass handed to him. By this I of course mean that both the professional and the amateur reviews of the second season of his much-discussed HBO crime show True Detective have thus far, two episodes in, been pretty withering. Then again, set against the critical and amateur reviews of season one of True Detective, which were rapturous to an almost bewildering degree (and I say this as someone who liked that season) almost any dip in enthusiasm would have to count as withering. But I'll tell you, I'm utterly unable to account, on logical or critical grounds, for the shift from adulation to sneering mockery which this show is now experiencing. Whose aunt did Pizzolatto throw off a cliff? Whatever problems season one had are, I'll admit, still there -- among these I myself would count a certain thoughtless adherence to formula, an over-fondness for reference, and possibly an inability to distinguish good poetry from bad -- but so are all the good things: strong lead and secondary performances, a wonderful air of grim mystery, menace, and suspense, a willingness (even a need) to take genre seriously (something Pizzolatto is being dinged for now, though, somehow, not then). And finally, my favorite thing about True Detective, a willingness to be straight-up weird, something that has made its way into the show, ironically, via something that has become one of the show's deficits, which is that fondness for nodding too hard at the works of others. This is a plus and a minus, in other words. When it works on the show, you get, in season one, the weird horror of Robert W. Chambers, H. P. Lovecraft, and, most intriguingly, Thomas Ligotti pulled into the mix of a homicide investigation. In season two, the strong James Ellroy influence that I also noticed in season one becomes foregrounded, as this year's storyline (and each season is a new self-contained story, with a new cast and new characters) and structure almost begs you to think about Ellroy's 1988 masterpiece The Big Nowhere. Recently, it also wants you to think about Georges Franju's film Judex, but never mind about that.

So what happened? Fucked if I know. I'm enjoying season two of True Detective as much as I enjoyed season one (in other words, a reasonable amount). As usual, the backlash can only be observed from a distance and wondered at. You can't assume anything about those engaging in the backlash -- or, rather, you can, and it's possible that I have, but you can't say, publicly, that there's any sort of dishonesty at work here because you just can't know. (And to be extra clear, I don't know, but I am baffled; also, if you never liked the show then obviously you're off the hook.) This is a relief because as it happens, while this post is about Nic Pizzolatto, it isn't about True Detective. In 2006, Pizzolatto published a book of short stories called Between Here and the Yellow Sea. It received praise from such writers as Adam Johnson, Ellen Gilchrist, Tom Franklin, and William Gay. (This, in and of itself, shouldn't necessarily mean anything to you, though I would argue that it's not something that should mean nothing to you, either.) In 2010 he published a novel, called Galveston. The reaction to that, which included a rave by celebrated crime writer Dennis Lehane in The New York Times Book Review, probably greased the wheels that led to True Detective happening at all. None of this, of course, means that True Detective is any good -- if you don't like it, you don't like it. But in the wake of that show's season two premiere, which might have to be regarded as disastrous, Pizzolatto has been accused of being phony, and a bad writer. And I'll admit that if a certain thing that many predict will happen in episode three of season two does in fact happen (we'll all find out in about six and a half hours), then I will have no choice but to call out Pizzolatto on some pretty egregious bullshit, storytelling-wise. Nevertheless, I've read selections from Between Here and the Yellow Sea as well as all of Galveston, and I'm telling you, Pizzolatto means what he writes. You can scoff at it and think his work "takes itself too seriously" (whatever in the world that means), but just because he takes the crime genre more seriously than you do, that doesn't somehow mean he's lying.

Of the three short stories I read from his collection, the one that comes closest to being a traditional crime story is the title story, "Between Here and the Yellow Sea." In it, a young man named Bobby Coressi remembers the day Amanda Duprene, the cheerleader he loved, unrequitedly, in high school hopped into a Chevy and took off forever, leaving behind her father, that same high school's football coach:

I was there the day she left. I mowed lawns back then, and on that Sunday I worked the yard next to Coach Duprene's house. A red Chevy Blazer parked in their driveway. Four boys I knew from school were in that truck. The back end sagged with boxes and bags, a surfboard. High school was over, and they were all moving to California. Coach Duprene watched from the porch and didn't wave as the truck rolled way.

Someone, we can now say, should have stopped that Chevy. It's no secret. She makes movies under the name Mandy LeRock. I've only seen one.

Some time later, Bobby and Coach Duprene join together for a road trip to California, with the vague notion of saving Amanda from the clutches of the porn world. You might envision some kind of bloody showdown with porn goons, revelations that Amanda has sunk beneath the level of mainstream pornography into something more shadowy and frighteningly transgressive, but no. There is a rather dark revelation, or rather a hint towards one, but otherwise Pizzolatto lets the story play out to a deliberately anticlimactic end. The conclusion that not everyone wants or even especially needs your help is not the kind one is usually asked to draw from a crime story.

Another story, called "The Guild of Thieves, Lost Women, and Sunrise Palms" is about a young guy named Hoyt who lives in an RV park with his dad. One day, his dad gives Hoyt two thousand dollars and says that he has to leave for a while, and that money will have to last Hoyt until he gets back. In the meantime, Hoyt hangs out with his friend CB, a war vet who now deals drugs with Hoyt's help, and whose RV is across from a palm reader. If this all seems a little too colorful, Pizzolatto's prose is always clean, letting whatever feels like it might be a bit much just exist, unadorned:

CB has told Hoyt that CB used to mean Charles Bailey but now it meant Coffin Boat. CB used to be enormous. He used to hold the state triple-A division record in the shot put. He has a composite plastic plate in his hip and a note that excuses him from metal detectors. He's always refused to tell Hoyt stories about Iraq. CB's skin is dark brown and hard like wood, and he has a thick face, a flat nose, black eyes. He is full Choctaw. Great pink scars engulf his left arm -- a gnarled arm seeded with shrapnel, always bent in a way that reminds Hoyt of the tiny, useless claw of a T-Rex. Hoyt met CB two years ago, pawning the first thing he ever stole, a neighbor's shiny .45 Magnum.

Again, as with "Between Here and the Yellow Sea," the elements of a crime story are laid out, but "The Guild of Thieves, Lost Women, and Sunrise Palms" doesn't even employ the kind of crime plot that "Between Here and the Yellow Sea" subverts -- Hoyt's story is instead completely aimless, as is Hoyt. The idea, one supposes, is to take crime out of the high-plotting we usually associate it with, such as you'd find in Chandler, or Ellroy, or, you know, True Detective, and put it back into the realm of bored, angry reality. Which Pizzolatto pulls off rather well, although he's not immune to letting the language of fiction mar the reality he's trying to construct. At one point, two cops are questioning Hoyt about his father, and during one tense moment of the interrogation Pizzolatto writes "One of the deputies idly examined a fingernail." Which, frankly, is pure movie horseshit, a shortcut to "jaded" or "heartless" that has been rolled out unimaginatively in countless films.

And it's odd, too, that Pizzolatto would choose to compound this sort of thing with his blatant references to other crime novels and films. In the other story I read, "1987, The Races," which is pretty much not a crime story at all, about a boy spending a day at the tracks with his kind, yet stupid and desperate, father, the boy, whose mind is all jumbled up with his parents' divorce, his loyalty to his dad, his dad's own frustrating behavior, that he feels great anger at a well-meaning woman at the tracks his father likes (and I'll add for the sake of context, has just given a lot of fruit to), and anyway, Pizzolatto writes:

[The boy] wanted to grab the sack of oranges and beat her with them, like he'd read about a man doing to a woman in a crime novel his father had.

The decision to so blatantly and awkwardly reference Jim Thompson's The Grifters is all the worse because "1987, The Races" is a good story -- it has immediacy and real heartbreak in it. Nothing is brought to the table by basically saying to the reader "We both like crime fiction so much that I'm not even going to name the book in question because you don't need me to." It would be far less irritating if Pizzolatto had chosen to pay homage to The Grifters by writing a story in which someone is beaten with a sack of oranges, with no mention that the idea came from a Jim Thompson novel. That is, in fact, the kind of reference Pizzolatto is messing around with in True Detective: the Ligotti, Chambers, and Lovecraft stuff in season one, and the James Ellroy stuff now in season two. At no point in season one did anybody say "Have you ever read Thomas Ligotti? Well let me tell you..." Whereas in "1987, The Races" he's essentially stopping his story to say "The Grifters by Jim Thompson." Although it was not mentioning Ligotti by name in season one that led some people to accuse Pizzolatto, rather absurdly I believe, of plagiarism, so maybe he shouldn't listen to me.

Anyway, the decision to clumsily insert genre references into his writing was not an impulse he was able to shake by the time he wrote Galveston, his novel from 2010. About midway through the book, the narrator, Roy Cady, is talking to another tenant of the motel where he, Rocky, a young prostitute, and her three-year-old sister Tiffany are staying. This other tenant, Tray, says to Roy:

"You know you remind me of, man?...Guy from the movies. What's that guy? He was in the movie about the cockfighter. And the other. Ole boy driving around with a head in the car."

Two words never uttered in the ensuing exchange are "Warren Oates," because we know, we don't need to be told. Although I do wonder about somebody who has seen both Cockfighter and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia yet can't remember Warren Oates' name. On the other hand, now we know that Roy Cady looks like Warren Oates.

So, I don't like that sort of thing, but otherwise I did like Galveston because Pizzolatto, when he's not simply scratching some pointless genre itch, is a good writer. In the novel, Roy Cady is muscle for a New Orleans gangster. As the novel opens, he's just learned that he's dying of lung cancer -- the x-ray showed in his chest "a blizzard of soap chips." When he hits the bar out of which much of Stan Pitko's, his gangster boss, business flows, Roy orders Johnnie Walker Blue, a $40 a shot Scotch that also recently turned up on True Detective, so that's another thing with Pizzolatto, apparently. Anyhow, Roy starts drinking Johnnie Walker Blue because why not? The gist of the rest of Galveston's set-up is that for a variety of reasons, both business and personal, Roy begins to think that the job he's being sent out to do will result in his murder, as ordered by Stan Pitko. He turns out to be right, but, lung cancer or no, Roy doesn't feel like going out like that, he fights back, kills his murderers, and ends up fleeing the house where it all went down with Raquel Arceneaux ("She pronounced it Arson, oh."), aka Rocky. They're now both on the run from the same people, and they find themselves heading to Texas. Galveston specifically, though there is a detour to pick up Rocky's kid sister, which shocks Roy, as does the gunshot coming from Rocky's family home that precedes her leaving with the three-year-old Tiffany. Did Rocky murder her father while she was in there? She claims she just scared him.

Galveston is a much more traditional crime story than anything I read in Between Here and the Yellow Sea, although much of the novel, after that groundwork has been laid, involves the journey of Roy, Rocky, and Tiffany, as well as Roy's relationship with Rocky, which he can't bring himself to make sexual even though she seems almost too willing. This sort of gender mess is one of the things that raised folks' antennae even during the much ballyhooed first season of True Detective -- why all the hookers, why is sex such a huge factor in the makeup of the female characters? -- and it's almost as if this genre, which is a beloved and respected one by, I'll go out on a limb and say, many of the same people now down on the show, had never before contained any strong component regarding the power of female sexual wiles. But I almost feel like it kind of did? For a little while there? Speaking for myself, I liked the character of Rocky a lot, and though she's a bit of an archetype (you can use a less flattering word if you'd like) she's a well-drawn one. At one point, speaking about her to someone else, Roy says that Rocky "had a hard life," which you can see early on (the particulars are eventually made clear, though they're easy enough to predict); you can also see that this hard life has thrown her into an awful situation that she's trying to deal with. And she's about twenty years old. People tend to have abundant sympathy for such people in real life but denounce them as sexist cliches when someone writes about them in fiction.

Of course, Galveston is mostly about Roy, whose own life up to and including his cancer diagnosis hasn't been a barrel of monkeys. Early on, he lays out his family situation:

I was seven when John Cady got back from Korea, and less than two years later he'd fallen of a cooling tower at the refinery and broken his neck, drunk before noon. I called him dad but as I grew older several things made it pretty obvious he was not my father -- our looks, the timeline of my conception. He was always kind to me, though we didn't know each other long. Around a year after we buried him Mary-Anne dropped off a bridge. She preferred me to call her Mary-Anne instead of Mom, which she claimed aged a woman ten years. They said she jumped, but I don't believe the people she was with are to be trusted. Then the group home and the Beidles and the cotton fields.

And now I was dying and everything that had ever happened to me was starting to seem hazily important.

I'd say roughly about a third of the way into Galveston, the plot takes a surprising left turn. Though it comes somewhat early, I'm still somewhat loathe to spoil it here. Suffice it to say, it opens things up considerably, in terms of how we think about certain characters going forward, and how Pizzolatto then manages the suspense, and increases it, in this not terribly plot-heavy book (though the element of suspense, of various kinds, is inherent in the novel's very premise). It also heightens the dread, and the doom, which, given the turn in question...well, never mind. But it works a treat, as they say.

One of Pizzolatto's great gifts as a prose writer is his ability to sketch out an environment, and side characters, with such breezy authenticity that, in all honesty, highlights the hopelessness of that Warren Oates gambit. Speaking of which, Tray, the character with whom Roy has the Oates conversation, is a great piece of added menace, and that section of the book at the Texas motel is a wonderful bit of atmosphere. Pizzolatto is also able to write about poor white Texans without condescending to them, or portraying them as unlikable unless, of course, they happen to be unlikable. This is a distinction not many are able to draw. There are a variety of, for lack of a better term, "civilians" that Roy, Rocky, and Tiffany encounter in their travels, and Pizzolatto seems to understand intuitively how they talk, and how the good ones differ from the bad ones, and what is quickly, noticeably specific about each. Pizzolatto isn't one of the all-time great crime writers by any stretch of the imagination, but that sort of gift is not one to be dismissed. In any genre, but, you might could argue, in this genre especially.

Eventually, Galveston reaches a conclusion that will satisfy some but not others, but which is, fittingly, in tone and incident somewhere between the plotless endings to the stories (the three I've read, anyway; not much of a sampling) in Between Here and the Yellow Sea and the kind of stylized mayhem of True Detective. I liked it. I like his TV show, too, even though most people seem to have decided he's doing the wrong thing. If, however, as a result of this backlash, True Detective gets buried, I'll be okay with it (certainly more okay than Pizzolatto would be), because I assume that would lead him back to writing novels. I'd like to read his next one.


Fabian W. said...

I really loved season 1 of "True Detective" but watching Season 2 makes me wonder just where the line is between homage/inspiration and straight-up rip-off. Especially because Pizzolato's so ungenerous when it comes to actually talking about his influences - when he was asked in an interviewed what books fans of the show should check out he didn't mention Ellroy or Burke or Vachss or Peace but "the Old Testament of the King James Bible".

I realize this has nothing to do with your review which actually makes the first good case for his actual skills as a writer and not just compiler I've read.

Robert Fiore said...

It becomes particularly apparent in Episode 3 that another key reference point for the series is The Long Good Friday -- a gangster expanding into legitimate enterprises finds himself hunting down the unknown underworld forces conspiring against him while keeping his enterprises intact.