In a previous post, I wrote about Nic Pizzolatto’s career up to his development of the HBO Series True Detective and focused in particular on his novel Galveston. I have just finished his short-story collection, Between Here and the Yellow Sea, and especially for a debut collection, it is astonishingly accomplished. Little wonder that most of the stories in the collection had been published initially in some of the most highly regarded literary journals, that several of them have received awards, and that the collection has received very laudatory reviews.
The collection includes just nine stories, but it is more than 260 pages long. So these are substantial pieces of work, with several approaching novella length. The stories are very readable, with a surface facileness that contrasts with their thematic density. Most of the stories employ the most striking structural feature of both True Detective and Galveston—a movement both back and ahead in time from the main action that serves to intensify the suspense. But, unlike the HBO series and the novel, these are not crime stories per se, though crimes do figure significantly in at least three of the nine stories. Instead, of detectives and criminals, these stories generally feature ordinary characters who both are intent on stepping out of the ordinariness of their lives and are haunted by the peculiar details of and patterns in their lives that seem to lie always just beyond their understanding.
The opening story “Ghost Birds” concerns a park ranger who works the overnight shift at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. In the middle of each shift, when he is fairly certain that no one is around to see him do it, he base jumps from a small window at the top of the arch. One night, as he is about to jump, he notices a group of young people in the park, university students who are researching the sightings of a mysterious black, birdlike crypto-creature that has been seen descending from the arch in the middle of the night. There is even a website devoted to sightings of the creature. The protagonist, who is a recovering addict haunted by the drug overdose of a former lover, has approached the base jumping very ritualistically, almost spiritually, as a sort of purgative exercise. When one of the university students, a young woman, guesses his secret and becomes involved with him, their relationship becomes intrinsically connected to her compulsion to base jump and his determination that their continuing relationship depends on their avoiding its inherent risks.
“Amy’s Watch” is a story about a young woman who becomes involved with and then pregnant by a significantly older, former boyfriend of her older sister. That sister has moved away from their small hometown in Texas, has married a wealthy executive in the tech industry, and has never returned home. When their brother, a troubled brawler who has also left home, is found stabbed to death on a street in Seattle, his funeral becomes an occasion for opening most of the family’s old wounds, and it provides the title character with a new frame of reference for deciding whether to keep the baby and for looking forward toward the rest of her life.
“1987, The Races” is told from the point of view of a pre-teen boy whose parents are divorced. His father has custody of him for two weekends each month and almost always takes him to watch the horse races. The action of the story takes place over several hours on one Saturday afternoon, during which his father futilely tries to impress a much wealthier woman whom he mistakenly believes has some romantic interest in him. The boy’s very conflicted feelings toward his father come to a head as his father’s delusions are embarrassingly exposed.
In “Two Shores,” an English professor, who has relocated to take a position in a Gulf Coast community in which he feels woefully out of place, has a fling with a waitress who ends up pregnant. She sends notes to him and to the two other men who may be the father, stating that she is not looking for anything more than some clarity on the baby’s paternity, so that he will never be troubled by any ambiguity about who his father was. The professor goes to the bar where she worked and met the three men and where she has asked them to meet her. But on her way to the meeting, she has an auto accident that kills both her and the baby. At her funeral, the protagonist meets one of her longtime friends, and they rather quickly become involved. But, when it is discovered that the auto accident resulted from someone’s tampering with the brake lines on the dead woman’s car, both the protagonist and his new lover become troubled in unexpected and paradoxical ways.
The title story of the collection concerns a quixotic quest by a young man and a former high school football coach. They have learned that, since moving to California, the coach’s daughter, a former cheerleader with whom the young man had been very infatuated, has become the lead actress in a popular series of pornographic films. They decide to drive to California, planning to kidnap her and take her to a “de-programmer, and finally to return with her to Texas. But the young woman is now quite adult, and, not surprisingly, the preposterousness of the quest dissolves into ridiculousness on the doorstep and lawn of her home. Like many of Pizzolatto’s young male protagonists, this one has several versions of his family history among which his psyche shifts. So, the quixotic quest becomes a corollary to his much more profound coming to terms with the arc and meaning of his own family history and immediate life story.
In “The Guild of Thieves, Lost Women, and Sunrise Palms,” a young loner hooks up with a crippled Iraq vet to move stolen merchandise and to pedal drugs. The young man is so wrapped up in his own delusions about the sustainability of this sort of life that he is completely unaware of his divorced father’s much more elaborate criminal schemes– even after his father packs several trunks and suitcases in the trunk of his car and hands him $2,000 in hundred dollar bills, telling him that it might have to last him a while. When federal investigators show up at their home with search warrants, the young man has been so unreflective about his father’s behavior that it takes him some time to figure out that the investigators are not there to arrest him for burglary or drug dealing.
“A Cryptograph” concerns the growing estrangement between a divorced woman and her teenaged son, who seems increasingly obsessed with and outraged by political oppression and social injustice. When he suddenly leaves home, she finds only a stencil for a political slogan, and when she learns that the stencil has been used to spray-paint the slogan on walls around the poorer sections of town, she desperately attempts to re-establish some communication with her son by creating her own stencil and spray-painting it next to the slogans that he may have left on the walls. The story’s conclusion shows how oblivious she has been to the implications of her son’s escalating outrage.
In “Haunted Earth,” another teenaged boy tries to come to terms with his inability to understand his father by attempting to enter psychologically into what he imagines his father’s experience in Vietnam might have been like. The boy even becomes sexually involved with a half-Black, half-Vietnamese girl, who undoubtedly has parallel issues with her identity, though that possibility seems hardly to occur to the boy. He and his father have a strange, mutual epiphany in the midst of a community hysteria of supposed alien visitations.
And, finally, in “Nepal,” the temporal setting becomes more historical, shifting back almost a century to just after World War I. A wealthy man had attempted to build a “castle” on what had been the edge of the Western frontier, but he had died before the project was finished. His three sons, however, eventually commit to finishing the project, and the protagonist is hired as a glazier. Initially, he is under-employed, simply installing the glass panes of the eight greenhouses on the property. But an English cousin of his employers is visiting the estate and still grieving over the loss of her fiancé in the war. The protagonist happens to bear a remarkable resemblance to the dead fiancé, and his employers decide to commission him to create a great stained-glass window for the main entrance to the mansion. His relationships with the grieving young woman, with an Indian girl who lives with her brutish father, and with the other laborers who resent the favoritism being shown to him, as well as his understanding of his own artistic aspirations, all come to head in a violent confrontation that makes the actual completion and installation of the stained-glass window much more a denouement than a climactic event. Beyond even its rather quirky but very apt title, this closing story is both the most singular story in the collection and, paradoxically but unarguably, the best choice to close the collection.