Monday, December 17, 2012

Fiction: Me and the Devil by Nick Tosches

(Editor’s note: This review comes from Steve Nester, a resident of McKinney, Texas, and the host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Nester is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene and Firsts Magazine.)

You’ll be relieved to learn that rumors you may have heard concerning Nick Tosches writing a vampire novel aren’t quite true, not that Tosches couldn’t have set that genre straight. With his own brand of historical fiction, his tenacity and fastidiousness for getting to the ur-moment of culture and thought, Tosches is James Michener in a sharkskin suit. A tireless autodidact, he could’ve followed the roots of vampirism all the way back to the cuneiform tablet on which it was first recorded. But in Me and the Devil (Little, Brown), his fourth novel, no one skulks through the fog-shrouded streets of Manhattan to bite the necks of hip urban noctambules and turn them into vampires; that would be too banal. There is, though, some drinking of blood.

What Me and the Devil does is portray the spiritual demise and moribund career of a writer named Nick Tosches, with human-blood-drinking as the symbol for rejuvenation and rebirth. Along the way Tosches delineates the parasitic ways of humans, human vanity, self-delusion, the creative process and the gods men through the ages have created, among many, many other things.

In plenty of respects this book reads like a memoir. Both Nicks live in Tribeca; are writers; have struggles with alcohol; have plenty of gripes with the publishing world; live large with food and drink; and count among their friends many heavyweights in the music and publishing businesses. The candor with which author Tosches has his character express thoughts and pursue pleasure is remarkably brutal and brings the book into the realm of transgressive fiction. This honesty is often so vile and astringent, it could remove the enamel from Amy Vanderbilt’s cool, calm and mortified smile; but it has a purpose.

The sadomasochistic sex, misogyny, misanthropy and rants are so pervasive and jaw-dropping that the reader begins to believe Tosches has something to get off the chest of not only the Nick the character, but probably his own chest as well -- and the reader would be right. Tosches isn’t attempting in these pages to cater to an audience that appreciates base characters, crude situations and vulgar observations; he’s attempting to portray a lost soul who complicates what should be the simple pleasures of life -- wine, women and song -- to the point where they become perversions. But as the twilight hour approaches, he begins to have thoughts and now wants some answers.

Worn out by excess, his writing career inert, and in need of a spiritual second wind, Nick the character finally discovers the power of human blood.

Incorporated into the sex act, the several women he comes to know don’t mind getting cut in order that Nick can feed on them; they like it. Swilling blood immediately becomes Nick’s remedy for everything that ails him; makes him feel alive again and engages him in the world once more. Nick believes that blood can bring him closer to “the fresh-blossoming life force.” But the salubrious effects of sipping from the arteries of women young enough to be his daughters lasts only a short time before he enters a period where he’s no longer in control of his mind or actions.

Nick hits rock bottom when the devil himself appears in his apartment as a hallucination. Say what you want about the devil: he’s one of the few characters in this book who talks with any kind of sense, and he sets about straightening out Nick. The real implication here of course is that Nick is only talking to himself, and it is he who saves himself. As he makes his way back to reality and sanity, Nick realizes that nothing is more important or fulfilling than the simplicity of merely existing. Not books or writing or wisdom, not the fanciest food, wine or clothing, or the most beautiful and compliant woman can make anyone closer to the divine than they already are, if only they have the patience to realize it.

While the prose in this novel is often bombastic and flowery (“a dandelion fondled by a sigh of soft summer air”), Tosches attains pithy perfection when he keeps it simple and pierces to the core (writing, for instance, about “greed, the lowest of monotheisms”). Tosches is at his best when, as in his first novel, Cut Numbers (1988), he keeps his characters focused on the baser things in life. But since this new book is about a living person, Nick Tosches the writer, it’s going to be a little rough, a little opinionated, sometimes beautiful, and with off-the-cuff observations and the quirks of a searching mind.

As was true of Tosches’ previous novels, Me and the Devil is about something. Although it contains opinions on many topics, it’s really an unscrambling of the existential predicament as Tosches sees it: there are too many complications for what ought to be a simple explanation of where we come from and where are we going. It sounds corny to consider, but the truth is that he’s speaking the minds of many who reach a certain age. When there’s a veritable supermarket aisle of available faiths, and consumers are urged to pick a brand and take it for granted, perhaps the wisest action is for one to chart his or her own course to eternity -- just as Tosches has his character, Nick, do.

READ MORE:Nick Tosches: The ESQ&A,” by Scott Raab (Esquire).

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