Chained to the Mast With Jim Nisbet

The local noir novelist is a cult favorite in Europe.

In Jim Nisbet‘s novel Windward Passage, a smuggler dies a horrible death in the Caribbean Sea, chained to the mast of a sunken sailboat stocked with cocaine, a fortune, and a stash of the US president’s DNA. In Nisbet’s novel Lethal Injection, a convicted killer’s execution in a Texas prison sends the dead man’s best friend and ex-lover on a deadly, drug-soaked sojourn. His novel A Moment of Doubt wraps drugs, AIDS, gender, and hacking into one gritty bundle, set in the 1980s. All three books were published this year, along with a reissue of his debut novel The Damned Don’t Die (original title: The Gourmet). Another Nisbet noir, Dark Companion — in which a well-meaning Indian-American scientist becomes a fugitive from justice — will be reissued next spring.

“It’s something to have written a book in 1985 that’s apparently still viable in 2010,” said the San Francisco-based author, whose crime novels are cult favorites in Europe. “This ‘cult phenomenon’ business is another way of saying that, while all of my books have been continually in print in Europe for twenty-plus years … my publishing record in Gringolandia has been spotty, to say the least.”

Few American reporters have read Nisbet’s work. Yet when French, German, and Italian reporters ask for interviews, “they’ve always read the book in question and, way more often than not, they’ve read them all.” A typical European interviewer will also “show up with one or another of my titles, not necessarily the title in question, and ask me to sign it because ‘for me, it’s my favorite.’ Are these Europeans blowing smoke? No,” Nisbet concluded, because they’re clearly well-acquainted with his ouevre.

“Despite recent signs of fragmentation, European newspapers, magazines, and web sites support a critical apparatus whose job it is to think about ‘culture,'” said Nisbet. “For these people, ‘culture’ is a lively, ongoing, surprising, delightful, and dangerous enterprise that warrants acuity and not just product, another million-dollar production of Swan Lake, or a $135-million movie about a guy with toilet paper stuck to his shoe — although, of course, culture is that, too.”

Nisbet’s novels, plays, and poetry volumes (including 1980’s Gnachos for Bishop Berkeley) are part of a busy biography that includes retro-futuristic carpentry and ten years with Berkeley’s Blake Street Hawkeyes, the performance group that spawned Whoopi Goldberg. At Moe’s Books (2467 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley) on Monday, October 18, Nisbet reads with four fellow crime novelists published under the SwitchBlade imprint of Berkeley-based PM Press: Michael Harris (The Chieu Hoi Saloon), Benjamin Whitmer (Pike), Summer Brenner (I-5), and Owen Hill (The Incredible Double).

To research his novels, Nisbet reads. Beyond that, “Is there anything more dangerous than the mind? … Imagination counts for a lot, as does being fortunate enough to not be getting killed while leading as interesting a life as possible, while remembering at least some of it.” 7:30 p.m., free.

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