Monday, February 28, 2011

Nick Tosches, revisited

I've been thinking about Nick Tosches lately, his past and future.  Here's a review I wrote of The Nick Tosches Reader that originally ran ten years ago, in a slightly edited version, in The Georgia Review:

When I read Nick Tosches I think of Sal Paradise’s wide-eyed, beatified description of Dean Moriarty early in On the Road: “his dirty workclothes clung to him so gracefully.” And I hear William Faulkner from his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, reminding us of “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which can alone make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” Tosches, whose gritty, unfailingly honest writing has kept readers in touch with the unseemly margins of American culture for three decades, offers a generosity of dingy spirit in his best prose, rescuing figures from obscurity and giving form to the “rhythms of silence and wind,” to quote one of his favorite turns of phrase. Faulkner’s agony and sweat pulse through much of Tosches’ most powerful writing, though I’m just as tempted to describe Tosches as “Dante meets Elmore Leonard.” Dirty grace, indeed.

Readers are likely to be familiar with Tosches through his celebrated 1992 biography of Dean Martin, Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, or his recent features in Esquire and Vanity Fair. Longtime fans of rock & roll, especially of the rootsy, boozy kind, no doubt own dog-eared copies of his legendary 1982 Jerry Lee Lewis biography Hellfire and of 1984’s Unsung Heroes of Rock & Roll, a collection whose title reflects Tosches’ obsession with our culture’s shadowy borderlines. Less widely embraced—by a mass audience, if not by critics—are his novels Cut Numbers (1988) and Trinities (1994), and his early rock & roll profiles, interviews, and poems, the last widely scattered over three decades in numerous small-press publications. Da Capo Press continues its impressive 25-year literary recovery mission of liberating out-of-print material by asking Tosches to compile the best of his fiction, poetry, interviews, rock writing, investigative journalism, and criticism. Taken together in The Nick Tosches Reader, this work stands as an impressive introduction and as a staggering collection of writing that, while it may irk, offend, or bore some with its vulgarity and swagger, straddles mightily the line between commercialism and integrity. In both his fiction and nonfiction, Tosches’ consistent preoccupation with our country’s underbelly, along with his meticulous researching, shines a light on the complicated shadows thrown by some of our most popular myth-making cultural machines. From forgotten country singers to infamous European financiers, small-time Jersey crooks to the Mafia, Vegas denizens to rock & rollers, Tosches’ many subjects move stealthily; standing near them, he watches, listens, and gives shape to his own varieties of myth.

Reviewing such a compendium is difficult. I am tempted to discuss only the writing itself, ignoring the book’s shape and purpose. After all, The Nick Tosches Reader urges one to take a look at a long career, but it also puts that career in context. Here Tosches himself is the arbiter, and he selects widely if not exhaustively, purposefully ignoring, for example, his early-eighties “pop bio” of Hall and Oates, written in haste and not without embarrassment to pay off back taxes. Like his writing, his editorial pace here is cool and measured, surveying in broad, unhurried chronology a career begun on the side in low-circulation men’s magazines and currently commanding competitive six figure advances from New York publishing houses.

And one of the merits of this book is that it reminds us of the great and honest writing that can occur without the grace of the publishing world’s attention. Tosches, who admits to having had only ten dollars left in his bank account at an early point in his life, began his career as a dogged, committed writer and documentarian, bouncing around Greenwich Village with its many dim bars and grog-fueled lifestyles, scraping together a living. For him, the big payday came in the nineties, but this was after two decades of steady, purposeful, and stubborn writing, a testament to his powerful work ethic and focus. Early in the Reader, Tosches quotes a Hollywood director as saying, “If you’re going to be a whore, be a high-priced whore.” Tosches certainly has followed this advice—a recent profile in admires Tosches’ expensive custom-made loafers nearly as much as his literary output—and he even quotes a particularly mercenary (and funny) bromide from Faulkner as the Reader’s epigraph: “‘Now Mr. Faulkner,’ she said, ‘what were you thinking of when you wrote that?’ ‘Money,’ he replied.” To this reviewer, such dollar-mongering is instructive and smart: write religiously, work very hard, trust your writerly instincts, and you too might command lush contracts and movie rights.

Or, maybe not. But lack of commercial guarantees never stopped Tosches. The best pieces here are marked by the author’s fierce enthusiasm about, dedication to, and respect for his subjects. The Reader displays Tosches’ tireless approach to writing and research: infamously, he types with one finger, and such a resolute manner is echoed in the steely, lively tone of his best writing, a kind of concentrated dramatizing that keeps the focus on the subject while the author’s voice and persona fuel and move the piece. Tosches, in his desire to truly know his subjects—from seventies downtown punk princess Patti Smith to boxer Sonny Liston, evangelist Jimmy Swaggart to country legend George Jones, Screaming Jay Hawkins to Joe Franklin—goes mano a mano with them, and it’s hard to tell while reading which is the more enjoyable discovery.

As a selected collection should, The Nick Tosches Reader charts the narrative arc of a writing career. Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, as the son of a barkeep, Tosches felt the calling of The Divine Comedy and crime novels as passionately as he did that of criminal mischief. He alludes cryptically (and a tad melodramatically) in his introduction to having been left for dead in a city-park lake as a young man; he was not expected to live through the night, but he survived the assault. “Somewhere, early on, in the course of that river of dark night,” he states, “I became a writer.” This collection is testament to the deliberate shaping of a life that language and the imagination (and good ideas and hard work) can accomplish. The best pieces in here prove that the literary endeavor shapes not only fictional lives, but real lives as well.

Because The Nick Tosches Reader ranges far across genres and years, it necessarily weakens in places; its form might best be envisioned as an overstuffed warehouse, not a refined, aesthetically pleasing mansion, and not all of the wares are up to snuff. I’m not a fan of Tosches’ poems; inevitably they read as either relined prose jokes or overblown, antiquated imitations. In a 1998 slam of Raymond Carver's poetry, Tosches sneers that Carver’s verse is of “the most prosaic and mundane kind,” lampooning its “desiccated and self-absorbed preciosity” and metrical lameness. In the next few pages he struts out his own poetry self-importantly, including these winning, and apparently agelessly grand, lines:

Let’s see a show of hands.
I want to know, who among us—
man, woman or beast—
Jerks off standing up.

Tosches amplifies this simple smut with greater success in much of his fiction, particularly his stories. There he celebrates, not without welcome doses of self-deprecation, men’s fixation on sex, women, anal sex, women, and bravado. This macho, carnal milieu that Tosches dramatizes is by definition limited: there is little room for dimensional women in much of his writing (and, a reader cannot help but surmise based on Tosches’ autobiographical pieces here, in his life as well). The reduction of women to sexual availability, packaged in and as semi-pornography, is a caution, of course: it is unfortunate, but representative of a male/female dynamic that interests Tosches (particularly in his fiction) and to which he unfailingly applies characteristic attention to wit, detail, and narrative. In some of his nonfiction profiles of women (Smith, Carly Simon, Deborah Harry) Tosches approaches and engages his subjects with respect and admiration, but this doesn’t eclipse the fact that images of women in the Reader remain essentially flat and coopted, one-dimensional snapshots of lipsticked mouths open or shut. That many of the stories (such as the “Frankie” series co-written with fellow gonzo writer Richard Meltzer) are both funny and erotic is testament to Tosches’s skill at weaving humor and pathos within Penthouse- and Oui-style sex fiction, two magazines for which he occasionally wrote. They paid him, after all.

Because Tosches writes lengthy books, he can only excerpt from them here—for example, he includes only the first chapter from Trinities, a novel of over four hundred pages—and this unfortunate if necessary editing detracts from the epic feel of his book-length fiction. One really only gets a taste for Tosches here, and should search out his novels and biographies. His magazine-length features, on the other hand, work terrifically in this format, and they—in addition to Tosches’ own at-times-arrogant-but-always-candid running commentary—are the Reader’s real pleasures. The aforementioned profile of George Jones (rejected by Tina Brown at The New Yorker and subsequently published in The Journal of Country Music) is a masterpiece of pacing and desire, and both his in memoriam piece on rock & roll writer Lester Bangs and his interview with Jerry Lee Lewis reveal the nearly gentle and compassionate eye that Tosches often trains on those cultural figures whose American-style poignancy so attracts him.

As much as anything, The Nick Tosches Reader celebrates the disparate panorama of contemporary American publishing. In a parallel rescue mission to Tosches’ own interests and concerns—the salvaging and renewing of the forgotten and shadowed—the Reader collects much work that originally appeared in low-circulation journals or fanzines with sorry shelf-lives. Next to his work for mainstream outlets such as Vanity Fair, Esquire, Details, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and publishers like Doubleday and Little, Brown, Tosches places work from criminally ignored (and mostly long-gone) publications such as Fusion, Teenage Wasteland Gazzete, Raunch Rock, Kicks, and Real Crime Digest, not to mention small book-publishing houses. True heroism, this: salvaging from the dustbin of a mimeographed publishing ethos works that might never have seen broader circulation, but deserve it. Kudos to Da Capo.

“He writes not of the heart but of the glands,” warned Faulkner about the writer who doesn’t steep himself in the truths of the human condition. But Tosches writes of both the heart and the glands, giving shape in his hard-bitten yet graceful prose to the marrow of the American spirit and to the marrow of its body—all of its profane, beauteous humor and tragedy, its ineffability, and its perfumed flesh. Nick Tosches should be read.


Since the publication of The Nick Tosches Reader in 2000, Tosches has written the nonfiction books The Devil and Sonny Liston (2000), Where Dead Voices Gather (2001), The Last Opium Den (2002), and King of the Jews (2005), and the novel In The Hand Of Dante (2002).  His work appears regularly in Vanity Fair still, though infrequently of late, and he was recently hired as a columnist by Playboy.  That will be interesting.  He writes and records poems, contributes introductions and/or text to books about subjects that interest him (neglected, out-of-print novels, crime lit, noir photographs, drawings, paintings, etc.), and makes rare public appearances in New York City.  Judging by reviews and customer comments on Amazon, many wish that Tosches would move from his more intensely (and crabbily) self-referential style of late and move outward, generously, toward big subjects and figures that engage him.  In The Hand Of Dante was, in my opinion, a greater conceit than a novel, but its ambition was marvelous.  Regardless of his critical standing and commercial iffiness, Tosches is truly an American original.  And I hope that he lives a long, healthy life and continues to write and publish, and that his crankiness about his beloved Manhattan doesn't eat him up.

According to IMDB, Johnny Depp has bought the film rights to In The Hand Of Dante and will produce, and play Tosches in, an adaptation.  This news is more than a couple of years old, however—a century in Hollywood Development Time—so I don't know what the likelihood is of this happening.  It'd be nice for someone of Depp's stature to shine light on the corners that Tosches writes about, and increasingly lives in.

Photo of Tosches via Crushingly Beautiful.


Anonymous said...

Dear Joe:

It was a pleasure reading your wonderful article.

I'm a musician working on a current project with Nick Tosches - a rock 'n' roll album rather than a book. Nick has done several CDs over the years that have flown a little under the radar. His lyrics, like the rest of his writing, is honest and funny and great.

Please check out the Kickstarter page to learn more about this current album and Nick's past ones.


Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks, Austin!