Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Jim Nisbet, author of The Damned Don't Die, Lethal Injection, Prelude to a Scream, Death Puppet and Price of the Ticket has long been one of my favorite noirists. In Windward Passage, his tenth book, he pulls out all the stops, combining his long-standing noir sensibilities with an off-the-wall post-modern disposition and cultural critique. Pacey, but filled with enough tropes to keep the most hardcore Jim Thompsonite happy- at least those partial to the final section of The Getaway or the surrealism of Savage Night- Windward Passage centers on a ship that sinks in the Caribbean, its captain chained to the mast. A logbook, a partially written novel, a brick of cocaine and the DNA of a President are all that remain. The appropriately named dead sailor's sister, Tipsy lives in San Francisco, where she hangs out at bars with her gay friend Quentin. That is until she runs into Red, Tipsy's brother's old employer.

Scrambling genres and voices, Windward Passage flits around geographically as well as linguistically, high-tailing it from San Francisco to the Caribbean and back again, dove-tailing from fast-talking, never-less-than-witty dialogue to tangential asides, reportage, paradoxical quips and a novel within a novel. With his ear to the ground, Nisbet not only updates the traditional noir narrative, combining it with a sea adventure story, conundrums, a dash of cyberpunk, and a sprinkling of literary concerns (including the likes of Tom Raworth, Paustovsky and Leonard Clark's The Rivers Ran East). From a prologue that will leave you scratching your head for at least a hundred pages, Windward Passage sometimes reads like a hardboiled Saragossa Manuscript, and bound to appeal to anyone looking beyond the confines of the genre. Still, I remember thinking while reading the novel that this is the sort of book we're told doesn't get published these days. So hat's off not only to Nisbet, but to Overlook Press. Because this is Nisbet at his wildest and weirdest. I'm still not sure what it all adds up to, other than an entertaining, insightful and highly recommended adventure.

If you haven't read Nisbet's Lethal Injection, Overlook has just reprinted it, to be followed by The Damned Don't Die in October and apparently the rest of Nisbet's back catalogue. Lethal Injection is arguably the best of Nisbet's early novels about a prison doctor who oversees the execution of a young black inmate indifferent to his fate, and sets out to discover the man's backstory. Not to be missed.

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