OLD AND COLD by Jim Nisbet
The Overlook Press, July 2012
Review by Ian Singleton
Old and Cold is a bum who walks the streets of San Francisco, sleeps under the bridge, and assassinates designated people for $5000 a head. Give that bum an existential tramp mentality approaching a conversation between Vladimir and Estragon, and you have one hell of a martini – the protagonist’s preferred poison, with which he sips away each of those five grand payoffs. This protagonist is also our storyteller, alongside his interior dialogue sidekick superego “the smart money,” wrapped up in second-person rags with the hitman-bum, so that we often don’t know exactly which “you” is which. The “smart money” has more conservative tendencies:
“Another goddamn cost-of-living expense, you grouse, there oughta be a pleonasm. Is this circling back to the notion of progressive writing? the smart money asks. No, you reply, albeit with some uncertainty. Good, the smart money says, because I’m a fiscal conservative. What’s that mean, anyway? you ask. In what context? the smart money hedges. What context? You wave a hand. This goddamn context.” (15)
As a noir writer, Jim Nisbet must be venturing into unknown territory with this novel. On the other hand, the writer has always shuffled into the fringes of genre, such as in the fantastic story of the Golden Gate Bridge, “Weight Less Than Shadow”. Without the hitman storyline, Old and Cold has its sight set on Beckett’s trilogy as a precedent. Moreover, the hitman plot, whether necessary or not, distracts from these ranting attempts at forming an identity out of the text – à la Beckett. When it does come to the surface of the narrative’s slurp-of-consciousness style, such as during the first murder scene, the effect Beckett achieved of the rigorous undoing of thought-identity becomes an unwieldy thing in Nisbet’s hands. There is very little physical detail other than the soon-to-be victim cartoonishly hitting the protagonist over the head with his surfboard. The necessity of giving this derelict narrator an occupation – one befitting a “noir” plot – burdens the novel and dismantles everything that Nisbet has built. Even if this were pure noir, the lack of details would be unacceptable.
However, the end does not lack a well-depicted, tense, and detailed chase scene. Subtract the noir ingredient, and the ending of this Molloy’s quest could rhyme with its beginning. It could bring us through the eternal working out of the equation back to the original problem, and we might know it better or at least see it as if for the first time. It could not go on and will go on. But the novel is about a hitman. And even the noir ending is anticlimactic enough to forego a spoiler alert here. There is a great one-liner about having “one less human being to despise” (160). If the character had been an abdicated misanthrope carrying the fire with his ragbag library of literary intelligence, this line would have made a good mantra: a litany by which to remember a notorious, memorable character. But he was never so attractively hateful. The bum was far too ginger for that.
Nevertheless, Jim Nisbet’s literary skill penetrates the stench, and there is an intent to move beyond or innovate noir. I’ve never heard of a bum-hitman, so I hoped I would read of one here. Whether or not the hitman part of his own inner-narrative is real or is a cover or is a delusion, I saw a very convincing, contemplative bum. I’m well aware there are such people in San Francisco, who can take the reader across the landscape (though not across the timescape as true stream-of-consciousness does). He can wax eloquent while smearing earwax on a wall to write out a mathematical equation recited to him by “the smart money.” I can see him, and I believe in him, but he’s no hitman, not for my imaginary $5000. But, if he’d let me, I’d buy him a martini and listen to him spew.
About the reviewer:
Ian Singleton’s stories, essays, poems, and translations have appeared in Fiddleblack, Ploughshares, Prick of the Spindle, Asymptote, and other journals. He won a Hopwood Award from the University of Michigan in 2004. He is a graduate of the MFA program at Emerson College. He works in the San Francisco Bay Area where he lives with his wife.