Jim Nisbet, . . McMillan, $30 (230pp) ISBN 978-0-939767-43-4

In this bleak noir novel set in San Francisco, Nisbet (Prelude to a Scream) etches the lives of two wretched misfits in acid prose. At 50-plus years of age, Mark "Pauley" Paulos has survived the horrifically abusive childhood trauma that forms the book's unforgettable prologue, along with untracked periods of jail and other misadventures, to achieve a kind of precarious stasis. Martin Seam, on the other hand, has little idea of who or what he is. Full of wants and needs and thoroughly amoral, he is willing to steal, cheat, scam or do anything merely to quiet those incessant desires. Unfortunately, Martin is as unsuccessful as he is unscrupulous. When these two collide in their separate orbits about the universe, it seems like a cosmic joke. If Elmore Leonard had created Pauley and Martin they would shine with a fine comic sheen. In Nisbet's hands they scratch, prickle, sweat and stink. Nisbet can overwrite ("Like the lysergic pinwheel from which depointillates all phenomenology, Mark Paulos' entire juvenile world devolved upon that nail and its strop"), but he also presents with wrenching effectiveness the fragile accommodations his characters have to make in order to survive in a hostile world they can never overcome and can keep at bay only for a time. (May)

Forecast:Originally published in French as Sous le signe du rasoir (1994), this is more an exercise in Dostoyevskian angst than a proper mystery and as such will appeal primarily to the collector's market. The jacket by underground comix artist S. Clay Wilson perfectly fits the text.