Nick Tosches is a very fine journalist. His biography of the boxer Sonny Liston, The Devil and Sonny Liston, has lived on my bookcase for years, and I’ve returned to it over and over again as a kind of comfort food of the strangest variety: a work of nonfiction that feels like it’s drawn of fictional characters. The prose dances with fancy footwork, keeping the reader off balance as it shifts from points of historical relevance to the sad truths of Liston’s life, and only at the end, when you remember that all of this actually happened, do you truly marvel at the research Tosches did to make the frenetic threads of a life feel somehow foretold.
The same can be said for Tosches’ numerous books on the history of music in America, his hard-edged essays in various top-flight magazines (best collected in The Nick Tosches Reader), and what can only be called his cultivated persona: He seems like a badass. All of which makes Tosches’ latest novel, Me and the Devil, such a horrible disappointment. It’s a dreadful read in a uniquely unpleasant fashion: misogyny dressed in the fancy prose of unreliability, sexual violence as playmate of late middle-age epiphany, casual racism under the guise of curmudgeonly irascibility.
The narrator, a rather loathsome famous writer named Nick who has stopped writing so that he can concentrate on his drinking, smoking, fine dining and rape fantasies, and who unironically pals around with Johnny Depp, Keith Richards and Peter Wolf (all of whom also blurb the novel … see … it’s meta … and it’s funny because, you see, it makes you question if this is all true … except it’s actually so self-congratulatory that it borders on narcissism), finds himself living in a Tribeca he doesn’t recognize. It was “a wonderful neighborhood, a neighborhood of seclusion and friendly encounters and whispers, welcoming byways and odd purchases” that has become filled with “twin baby carriages and strollers” and people “professing a love for what had been as they ran amok and destroyed it” to the point that Nick announces he was coming to hate “[T]hese white people.” It’s a sentiment we’ve all seen before from any number of writers bemoaning the next age of people who populate their once pleasant worlds. When he even complains about e-readers, one gets the feeling the notes from this underground could have been written by anyone mad about the passage of time making what they once found cool irrelevant (or, worse, corporate), but from Tosches, once the chronicler of counterculture, it reads a bit like Keith Richards screaming at the damn kids to get off his mansion’s lawn.
Though of course, it’s not Tosches the man here; it’s a character. That said, it’s a character who strikes such a resonant resemblance with the man himself that it’s hard to make much of a difference, even when Nick finds that what he most desires in these days of his dying personal empire is the taste of human blood. If this were an episode of Dateline, Keith Morrison would stand worried on a vacant New York street and talk about how odd it all seemed, this lust for flesh, and maybe we’d believe it in bad TV news journalism. But Tosches is better than that … or he should be. Instead, we get a man who devolves into literal bloodthirsty desire, biting open the femoral artery of one of his conquests, licking the blood from the whipped-open flesh of his next, maybe killing another, followed by pages of narrative rumination on sex, rape and literature and his too-often-less-than-fascinating impressions of each. “There were cunts and there were pussies,” Nick says at one point, for instance. “Most women had cunts. Ugly jagged-purfled necrotic folds of livid flesh and tissue to which one all but had to close one’s eyes.” It’s the kind of statement one makes when they want the reader to tremor, aghast, but it’s no more transgressive now than Dostoyevsky (or even Hubert Selby, whom Tosches mentions at some length in the book) would seem if he showed up today.
Me and the Devil is novel of vampirism, both literally and subtextually, except that what seems to be ultimately sucked from the pages is Tosches’ respect for his readers. It’s one thing to write for shock value if, in the end, there is something to be gained from the experience, a kind of understanding of the wider world, or even of the decay of what might be called society. Here, conversely, it feels like unfunny parody — the kind of writing Nick Tosches would make a mockery of compared to the literary lions he clearly holds dear.
ME AND THE DEVIL, by Nick Tosches, Little, Brown, 400 pages