Nick Tosches doesn’t give a fuck. He’s a genuine tough guy, the kind who can’t help but be that way. He comes from the sort of background that makes you insanely hard. He first killed a guy when he was 6 years old, a slightly older bully who came at him with a knife and said, “Hey, kid, wanna die?”
“I was scared,” he writes of the incident. “But, as I realized later, it was not the big knife that scared me, and it was not the boy that scared me. It was the question that scared me. It was the eerie sense of indecision ...”
Only a prodigy could be moved to reflection, however fleeting, by the bully’s rhetorical inquiry — and from this damned beginning Nick became a prodigious seeker of knowledge and information, with a keen feeling for the stuff which seemed to be attempting to illuminate the shadowy area in and around breath and death.
In an environment where only the most utilitarian impulses are nurtured, Nick was forced to become an autodidact, to read the great books without the discouraging influence of professional tutelage. He taught himself the arcane languages so as to be able to access the original rhythms of Greek, Latin and medieval Italian. He started to write, first musical pieces with a taste for the outsider poets of early R&B and later novels, where great lumps of learning lay on the page between terse depictions of lowlife desperadoes.
Lately, Nick hasn’t been in such great shape. He’s been a world-class boozer for too long and diabetes is starting to nip at his extremities. His books have sold just OK, but one of them made him a lot bread, a bio of Dean Martin (who also didn’t give a fuck), and lately he’s been hanging out in a hammock on some island somewhere, thinking sugary thoughts about nature, maybe even going soft. A recent wound to the leg has him contemplating gangrene and the old eternal question: “Hey, kid, wanna die?” But this is just an interlude and fate is about to intervene. Returning to New York, Nick is contacted by a thuggish acquaintance who’s going to draw him into the caper of a lifetime: the stealing and selling of a manuscript written in the hand of Dante, the only one in existence, worth a billion dollars, easy.
This Nick Tosches I’ve been describing is a character in this new novel by Nick Tosches. And although he’s fictional, it’s a safe assumption that the one Nick is more tightly than loosely based on the other — apart from a few items like the childhood homicide and the fact that I once knew a young writer in Jersey who made a pilgrimage to New York City to visit Nick and came back after spending an afternoon with him, saying that he “seemed like a nice guy.”
Nick made a contribution to the young writer’s fanzine, a tribute issue dedicated to the late Lester Bangs, consisting of a taped phone conversation between Nick and Richard Meltzer. (I used to have a copy of the tape. It was pretty cool.) During their ramblings, Nick, always a hardcore fogy, dismissed the currently active music writers and their unwillingness or inability to “make a mess on the page.”
Nick is a man of his word. Taken page by page, In The Hand of Dante strikes me as being rather carefully written, but taken as a whole the book is definitely a mess — a mess written in three modes. One is a super-hard-boiled, kinky approach, wonderfully condensed in the book’s opening sentence: “Louis pulled off his bra and threw it down upon the casket.” Louis is a foul character, the kind of guy who’d not only kill your only child, but fuck its corpse for a sour laugh and then forget it ever happened.
The second mode, the first-person reflections of the Tosches character, wavers between the rather self-consciously poetic and the compulsively ranting — there’s a long screed aimed at the publishing biz that he seems to have inserted into the novel just because he could.
The third mode, used to tell of Dante’s struggle to conceive his Divina Commedia, is learned to the point of obscurity. Despite the divergent styles, there’s a consistency here; it doesn’t matter if he’s going to be disturbingly nihilistic or sensually affirmative — either way, he’s not going to be easy on the reader.
So is it a good book, is it worth reading? I don’t know. I prefer the gangster bits to the more scholarly stuff, but that’s probably my own laziness — that and the fact that since knowing you’re going to review a book can make reading it feel a little like homework, I was predisposed to balk at its pedagogical aspects. I really didn’t want to know all those details about carbon dating, for example. But though it doesn’t flow like a conventional novel, or go cubist like an experimental one, it does seem to be sui generis, part spewed and part lovingly rendered. It’s an impressive mess, at least.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.