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A Warped Valentine From a Vanishing San Francisco

Life and Death in Snitch World

by BEN TERRALL

When you read crime novelist Jim Nisbet, don’t expect plot-driven mysteries involving square jawed detectives or damsels in distress (or the time-tested, and by now tiresome, hookers with hearts of gold). But unless you’re wedded to predictability, don’t complain about the dearth of traditional genre tropes, as that would be like criticizing Flann O’Brien for not following the model laid out by Charles Dickens. Instead prepare yourself for a world of hurt where good guys not only don’t win but often don’t even enter the picture. It’s a universe where, as crime writer James Ellroy described film noir narratives, “You are fucked!”

Nisbet, author of such sublime novels of all-embracing evil as Dark Companion and the stag-geringly dark Lethal Injection, is not well known outside genre circles in the U.S. but has been writing for more than four decades, publishing twelve novels which have earned him a considerable following in France. Aside from French, his novels have been translated into German, Japanese, Italian, Polish, Hungarian, Greek, Russian, and Romanian.

Nisbet’s just published (by the adventurous Green Arcade, a new imprint  from PM Books) Snitch World is a warped valentine to an all too quickly disappearing San Francisco where working class stiffs share stories of longshore union actions and class consciousness dominates everyday life. Nisbet infuses this book with contrasts between the old school, bumbling street hustler Klinger, denizen of the deliriously lowlife Tenderloin dive the Hawse Hole, and the hi tech smooth operator Marci, obsessed with getting snitchrich quick from the development of bizarre new aps for portable gadgets.

Klinger can barely get from one day to another, living with no fixed address or phone on robberies and small time cons, while Marci resides in lavish digs and is seemingly unable to unplug herself from her state of the art phone that keeps her on the internet 24/7 (not that such mental illness is all that uncommon these days). The intersection of the worlds these characters inhabit is the meat of this novel.

Nisbet’s writing is both meticulous and anarchic, and given his mastery of English it’s no surprise that his published output includes five volumes of poetry. He is an incredibly erudite prose powerhouse who seems to know something about every-thing. He loves to fly off on tangents that take the reader in unexpected directions.

In Snitch World, a cabbie makes mathematical calculations of how many SUVs it would take to pave the planet and Klinger tells a stranger leaning out a window about the lack of water pressure that resulted in San Francisco burning down after the 1906 earthquake (“The hell you talking about?” responds the citizen).

More accessible than some of his other work, Snitch World is a fun, twisted book, and if as widely read as it should be, will further solidify Nisbet’s reputation as a writer’s writer.

Ben Terrall is a Bay Area journalist. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com.