Jim Nisbet’s second novel, Lethal Injection, was released in hardcover in 1987 by the pre-Random House Black Lizard Books. In a Herculean effort to restore his place Overlook Press has begun reissuing Nisbet’s back catalogue in paperback. The Lethal Injection reissues kicks off this project and just came out a couple of weeks ago. I feel much in the same way when Overlook was reprinting the Charles Portis books, that they should be applauded for making sure that these books are back in print.
Nisbet has been flying under most readers radar screens for decades and has all the while been quietly producing one of the strongest, most daring and original bodies of work in modern fiction.
We read books looking for different experiences; to laugh, to solve, to learn, to escape, to feel superior or validated. There are some of us who read looking for what can sometimes feel like the most elusive of experiences, to feel gutted; absolutely hallowed out and unequivocally and fundamentally altered by the reading experience. In other words some of us chase the dark hoping to find it and often settle for something less. It put me in mind of the Derek Raymond quote:
The true black novel as I have tried to define it hardly exists in Western Europe today; it has been replaced, as I said, by its feeble substitute, the “crime novel”, the “police procedural”, too vapid to be worth serious commentary – a genre conceived to soothe the ostrich’s head in the sand, to smooth away the rough corners of society in the person of a tall, wonderful British detective or his bowdlerised female counterpart, a little old lady accompanied by a plastic bagful of knitting.
Lethal Injection is one of the rare books that really makes you appreciate what dark fiction is capable of and how diluted other purportedly dark fiction is.
In a bleak Texas prison Royce, an alcoholic doctor administers Bobby Mencken’s last “high,” convinced that the convicted killer was innocent. When Royce’s marriage crumbles he takes off for Dallas to search for the real killer.
Nisbet is as unheralded a master of the form as Lynn Kostoff is and this reissue, coupled with New Pulp Presses reissue of Lynn Kostoff’s A Choice of Nightmares, puts readers in a very good position to acquaint themselves with two of the best. In some respects Kostoff’s characters and the good doctor are cut from a similar cloth. Kostoff’s first two books deal with main characters going through a mid life crisis and Royce is in the throes of one himself. Where Kostoff’s characters make a leap at the elusive brass ring of one last score before their ultimate descent the doctor has a level of material value that the others don’t. He’s concerned with other matters like salvation and justice. Or he believes that he is anyway. He’s primed for the eventual descent that overcomes him but he doesn’t see it. When he recognizes the darkness that has taken over his life his lightbulb moment comes in that he recognizes the futility of fighting and just lets go. At that moment his fate is sealed and he accepts his new true self.
Royce is like a noir knight of the doleful countenance.
Jim Nisbet’s work has been tapping directly into the pulse of America for decades. Like others who have done the same in the past its only later that the rest of us catch up and realize just how right those trailblazers were all along. With two new releases and the start of the re-issues in 2010 that time is now, for all of us to not only catch up to this unheralded master but to offer him the respect and regard that he deserves.