Book Review: Coldwater by Tom Pitts
In Coldwater, a young couple moves to Sacramento after the tragic loss of their baby. But instead of a quiet life in the suburbs, they find themselves involved in the fight of their lives with a group of drug-addicted squatters with a dark past.
I wonder whether Tom Pitts likes jazz. I ask this question not because his books have anything to do with that type of music, or music of any kind, but because after six crime novels, it’s become clear that Pitts is working in the theme and variation mode typical of a jazz musician. I’m being careful in my word choice here; I’m emphasizing the idea of variation, not repetition. All of Pitts’ books have been standalones, and he has no recurring characters. He does not hew to what you might call a formulaic approach as a series author, even a good one, might. But from his first book, Piggyback, to his latest, Coldwater, Pitts has worked with a remarkably consistent set of pieces to construct his stories. How he arranges those pieces from book to book, shifting them around, altering what he chooses to emphasize, delving into a particular nuance in this novel but not in that one, is the interesting thing.
Coldwater reads like the third part of an informal trilogy. Set in California, in different cities and regions across the state, this trilogy started with American Static and continued with 101. The novel 101, as I wrote in a review of that book, inverts the situation in American Static. Both books feature young couples with troubled backgrounds who get into criminal difficulties that involve life and death pursuits and stand-offs. Pitts gives us a broad gallery of people: street denizens, drug users, drug sellers, cops, stone-cold killers, hired thugs, and the rich and powerful behind the scenes who are the ones who control the strings and will stop at nothing to get what they want. Coldwater has all these ingredients but puts more focus on another strand in the fabric: people who are ordinary middle-class folk who get swept up in the chaos of the criminal world.
Gary and Linda live in a comfortable house in Sacramento, California. Both work and they have a dog. As a married couple, they are happy enough, secure in their jobs, and comfortable in their routines, though both carry emotional scars from the recent loss of a baby. Across the street from their yard stands another house, which their neighbors, the Perkins, just packed up and moved from. Into this house, one quiet night comes what seems to be a quartet of squatters – a guy and his girlfriend who are twenty-something years old, a slightly older guy who is a huge hulk of a man, and a young teenage boy. The reader knows this group is bad news from the moment they appear, but it will take a while for Gary and Linda to find out just how threatening the group is. In short order, partly because he can’t resist the urge to pry, Gary finds that he has provoked the ire of the group’s leader, a man named Jason DeWildt. He is the twenty-three-year-old guy we have come to learn has a volatile streak and an extensive criminal record. When Gary, after a confrontation with Jason, calls the police on his neighbors, all pretense to civility is lost. But no crime has occurred between Gary and Jason, and in California, as Gary learns, squatters have specific rights. The cops can’t do anything to Jason and his group until something manifestly illegal happens. Gary and Linda are upset that their good intentions have led nowhere, and they find they have only made the situation worse for themselves. They have angered the strangers in the house across the street and made the group suspicious of their motivations. The middle-class couple that should have minded their own business gets pulled into a nightmare.
Still, it’s a distinctive nightmare, one with certain characteristics, a bad dream that unfolds the Tom Pitts way. This means most of the people are in movement, driving the California highways and roads, tracking each other or trying to, and that the individuals involved come from various social strata and act from a mélange of conflicting motivations.
There’s Calper Dennings, Hollywood fixer, the man who, through circumstance, winds up helping Gary and Linda. He is the sort of stoic professional the author excels at portraying, and at times Pitts uses him as a thoughtful presence, an observer through which to present commentary on the world depicted:
He got into his car and drove toward the Perkins’, being careful to note the details of the neighborhood, people who liked to while away the evenings in their open garages, any pot-smoking teenagers in the nearby park. It was a typical lower-middle-class suburban neighborhood. It could have been anywhere in California, in the US, actually. The same canvas of American life painting itself from coast to coast. He often said, ten miles in from the beach and you’re in the Midwest, and it was true.
There is also Stephan DeWildt, father of the dope-addicted Jason DeWildt, and though he never hits the road himself, he manipulates much from his gated Los Angeles estate. As unhinged and psychopathic as Jason is, we understand what’s behind his formation through the flashbacks that reveal how his father treated his mother. As in his previous books, Pitts is sympathetic to younger people even when those younger people have extreme problems and bring pain to others. Ultimately, the seed of the flaws in the younger people, the source of their destructiveness, lies with a parent or an older person, and that older person, more often than not, has wealth. Dysfunction gets passed down through the generations. In criminal groups, it gets passed down as well, unless, like the teenage kid in Jason’s group, you can escape the clutch of violence. But behind everything does lie something as American as that neighborhood Gary and Linda reside in, and Linda reflects on what that is when her ordeal is finally behind her:
Linda leaned back in her chair, the epiphany starting to take root. All she and Gary had been through. For what? The pointlessness was mindboggling. It was only a cruel twist of fate that trapped them in the vortex of one man’s insatiable greed.
No money is enough, no power enough. In Tom Pitts’ world, people at all levels, regardless of their vices and addictions, despite the baggage they carry, jockey to improve their standing ever so much. They drive the California freeways, meet for discussions in strip mall parking lots, drink the best high-end whiskey, or shoot up heroin in their cars. I liked Coldwater, and if I don’t think it’s quite up to the level of Pitts’ earlier efforts, that’s because he has set a very high standard for himself. In this book, Gary and Linda, so ultra-normal, without much complexity, create a slight blandness at the novel’s center. But Coldwater is well worth reading nonetheless, with the cool precision and the suspense we have come to expect from Tom Pitts’ writing. His incisive portraits of the Golden State remain fascinating, and I’ll be one to quickly pick up whatever he puts out next.