So often, avid readers settle for less. We browse the bestseller list, hoping for a title that will save us from the sinking ship that is publishing today. As e-books and e-readers murder print, one has to seek solace from the “blah blah blah” that populates the New York Times Best Seller List. It can be hard to find writers that can serve as literary life preservers. Some authors are getting only 30,000 first prints while authors who churn out a dozen books a year get nearly a million. What is the general public reader supposed to do when the market is flooded by novelty and frilly nonsense?
Discovering quality writers is the linchpin to avoiding being swept away by wimpy and shallow writing. In essence, what we need is some gut check fiction. A good ole’ cheap shot to the sternum fiction, classic tales of stone cold revenge, blurry eyed betrayal, dames to kill for, wild eyed boys taking aim, and stories that remind wholesome folks that locked doors are only a temporary solution. Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith, dive over the edge, and take the time to sample the work of an author you would normally pass over at the bookstore. Sure, reading can be a leisure activity, something to pass the time. However, why not be betrothed? Captivated? Get a chance to root for the bad guy? Be pulled head first into a story, carried along the banks of a riveting plot, spirited by dialogue, lifted up to the sky and set adrift to fall back to earth by the climax? If that is what you are looking for, here are some books and writers that merit your coin.
Nic Pizzolatto followed up his first publication, a book of short stories entitled Between Here and the Yellow Sea, with Galveston, a full-length novel. Released in 2011, Galveston is a violent, heartbreaking, and atmospheric story that encompasses terse dark writing and haunting characters. The novel unfolds like a beautiful poem or a sweet sad country song. Pizzolatto’s main character, Roy Cady, is a terminally ill criminal who makes one last attempt at deliverance when he saves the lives of two sisters from his cohorts. Like a bittersweet croon by the Drive by Truckers, Galveston reminds readers that the past has a way of catching up to us, no matter how fast we try to out run it.
Viewing them as his salvation, Roy escapes with the sisters to the vacant and desolate landscape of Galveston, Texas. With the reckoning of their bloodshed nipping at their heels, the protagonists seek out solace in burned out hotels and seedy bars of that make up Galveston’s gloomy milieu. Pizzolatto’s writing is fresh, intense, and sincere. Cady is an honest character that personifies the old adage, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” As the violence escalates and Cady runs out of good fortune, Pizzolatto takes the reader on a tour of loss, violence, and trepidation. For Cady, after a life of endearing violence, the price of his redemption is a debt paid with blood. In Pizzolatto’s world, the light at the end of the tunnel is a train.
Pizzolatto’s talents extend even further than writing novels. Currently, Pizzolatto is the creator, writer, and producer of the HBO series, True Detective. Pizzolatto’s foray into television gives his fans a chance to enjoy his poignant and captivating writing for hours. True Detective is about two homicide detectives chasing a ritualistic serial killer deep in the heart of Louisiana. Actors Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey play the detectives. Much like his novel, Galveston, the show is atmospheric, engaging, and chilling. The dialogue of True Detective is a testament to Pizzolatto’s talent as writer. A great quote by Grit-Lit author Frank Bills is “I don’t waste words. I write them.” Pizzolatto and Bills clearly share a kinship in this regard. Every sentence of True Detective holds meaning to the characters’ development. The inhabitants of True Detective exhibit their flaws and malevolence with believable grace and the viewer is treated to some the best acting on television today.
Dave Zeltserman is the uncrowned king of blue collar noir. Zeltserman has populated the 2000s with tales of urban desolation, suave ex-cons, dirty cops, men desperate for one last score, and average Joes looking to take something from a world that has robbed them of too much. He has even dipped his hand in horror with 2011’s The Caretaker of Lorne Fields and last year’s Monster. A personal favorite of Zeltserman’s fiction is Small Crimes. Hitting the street in 2008, Small Crimes chronicles the journey of paroled ex-cop Joe Denton as he seeks out a return to a normal life. As old enemies demand Denton to right past wrongs, the reader realizes despite his boisterous attempt, that Denton is not who he appears to be. Zelserman’s writing is sharp, vibrant, and smooth to read. He has the rare ability to make bad men seem redeemable and good men unsavory, as only great writers can do. As Denton’s antics of greed, coercion, and hostility escalate, Zelserman’s writing makes Denton’s machinations graspable and almost agreeable.
For more Zelserman, look out for his titles. Outsourced and Killer. Outsourced follows the escapades of a burned out software engineer who convinces his buddies to aid in a bank robbery. As the novel unfolds, loyalties are tested, true intentions are exposed, and Zelserman reminds his readers that a desperate man is the most dangerous kind. Killer introduces readers to an aging hitman looking to live out his life after a long prison term. Told both in the present and in flashbacks to the elderly assassin’s past, the reader has to decide if the enigmatic Leonard March is worthy of redemption and peace after all of his past atrocities or if his fate should be sealed by the very men he used to work for. The final scene of Killer unfolds like a fever dream and sticks with the reader long after the turning of the final page. As the heir apparent to the noir throne of Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson, Zelserman’s characters are scalded dogs running toward their own oblivion. His novels are laced with doom, embedded with black comedy, and topped off with memorable characters.
Released in August of 2006, Tom Franklin’s Smonk received resounding praise. With comparisons to Cormac McCarthy and Faulkner, Franklin was already on the rise with his previous work, Hell At The Breach. Albeit a western, Smonk is not your typical shoot em’ up, end up with the buxom beauty, ride off into the sunset story that dominates the genre. Set in 1911, Smonk follows the exploits of E.O. Smonk, a liquor swilling, wife stealing, livestock killing son of a gun. He is a gregarious and monstrous man that is nothing less than a Tarantino esqe urban legend. The town of Old Texas, Alabama is sick of his exploits and seek to put him own trial. However, Smonk has bigger plans. Going down swinging, Smonk’s accomplices bust him out of Old Town. Meanwhile, a group of Christian law dogs hunt down an angelic hooker named Evavangeline. As story lines converge, the bitter secrets of Old Town are exposed and the reader cannot help but cheer for the villainous Smonk.
Franklin’s Smonk is an inexorable tale of violence, destruction, and overall savagery. Franklin’s writing is fierce and as sharp as a razor blade. His characters are so vibrant; they still seem human despite their lack of any trace of compassion or kindness. Franklin’s talent as a writer allows Smonk to read like a blurry story from a saloon bar stool. The dialogue is bathed in dark humor and ripe with characterization. The extreme violence and degradation of the story gives way to a boot stomping thrill ride. There are rabies, more shoot outs than a Sergio Leone’ flick, unbridled damnation, and even a dog named Lazarus The Redeemer. It is not for everyone, but anyone looking for a savagely funny good time will want to pick up this unique and outrageous yarn about one the west’s most dastardly gunslingers.
A heathen is a person who does not prescribe to conventional beliefs (i.e. “the norm). Zelserman, Franklin, and Pizzolatto are straight up heathens, charging the norm like raging bulls. They have their own style and their own way of doing things. These authors stand out because of their poignant and charismatic writing. Their characters display the complexities of man and that sometimes it can be too late to make the right choice. They paint landscapes where harsh intent and bad intentions roam like buffalo. Do not settle for what the mainstream media is telling you to read. Instead, do a little research, push your limits and take a gander at the guys that are reinventing the mettle of fiction. It does not just stop with Zelserman, Franklin, and Pizzolatto. Writers like Christopher Buehlman, Richard Lange, and all the Grit-Lit boys are worth your weight in gold. Keep cruising the back roads and pulling up beside burnt out roadside attractions, because the best fiction often resides on the wrong side of the tracks.