Literary Raconteur Nick Tosches Discusses Rimbaud, Addiction, And His New Novel
“My entertainment,” author Nick Tosches tells me, his voice a curious mixture of resignation and glee, “is watching the downfall of civilization.” As he says this, he glances out the window as if it offers the perfect vantage point for observing the End Times. It takes a moment to sink in, but as I take my next sip of coffee I realize, this motherfucker isn’t kidding.
During his long career, Tosches has earned a reputation as a writer who doesn’t mess around. Hellfire, his 1982 biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest rock and roll biographies ever written; he’s responsible for the definitive boxing deconstruction, The Devil and Sonny Liston; and novels like Cut Numbers and In The Hand of Dante are uncompromising works that offer a dark worldview radically different from what passes as capital-L Literature these days.
I find Tosches in the shadowy recesses of Circa Tabac, a bar that is also a central location in his latest novel, Me and the Devil. We are in one of the few stalwart holdouts of a whitewashed Manhattan, and I am talking about Rimbaud with one of the city’s last great literary pugilists. His graying hair swept back
over his head and his sleepy blue eyes still flashing behind smoke from a fat cigar, at 63 he’s every part the louche of legend.
“Rimbaud always intrigued me,” he says. “He went off to the most forbidding place on the earth at the time”—referring to the poet’s time spent in Harar, Ethiopia during the 1880s—“to deal in coffee and guns. And Ezra Pound…” He stops mid-sentence and shakes his head. “Anyway, they’re dead. They don’t need the money. Write about me.”
Me and the Devil is Tosches touching his outer limits. It’s a compulsively readable tale of sadomasochistic obsession and Faustian misbehavior: a meta-rumination on aging, sex, and the nature of art. In it, “Nick Tosches”—a writer of advancing years with a drinking problem—discovers that consuming the blood of young virgins is turning him into something immortal, something much like a god—a revelation that culminates with the appearance of a man who may or may not be Beelzebub himself.
It wasn’t an easy book for Tosches to write. “At times I just felt so exhausted by it,” he says. “I’d think, ‘This is the last book. I don’t give a fuck, but here it is.’ ”
He was so disturbed by the extremity of the material that he stopped work on it twice before finally pulling strength from a mysterious darkness— was that sulfur I smelled on those galley pages?—and pushing himself to finish it. He puffs contemplatively on his cigar and says, “The world being what it is, and people being what they are… I just figured this was a good point in time to strap them to the electric chair, ya know?”
We riff a bit on the subject of drugs, specifically baclofen, which is claimed by many to be a silver bullet cure for even the most trenchant addictions, specifically alcoholism. It’s something that Tosches writes about at length in the novel. He tells me he attempted to cure his own craving for alcohol with the drug and admits that it may have had a retroactive effect, saying, “I have no taste for alcohol now.”
Turning to the state of publishing, Tosches feels it’s becoming harder for novels of substance to find a readership these days, despite the best efforts of authors to try and engage readers via avenues like social media. It’s in part, he muses, because publishers are still struggling to adapt to a quickly changing landscape. I mention that in this brave new world it seems that sapless books like Fifty Shades of Grey benefit the most. “There’s a certain gift in being that perfectly… mediocre,” he says.
He straightens up, takes a gulp of beige coffee, and looks out the window where the sunlight is bathing the streets of Soho. “I’m telling you, it’s the absolute truth, Tony. My entertainment is the downfall of civilization. This is it. This is definitely the worst species that has ever occupied the planet. For every one of its glorious achievements there’ve been millions of other people who’ve left nothing but a legacy of stupidity and destruction. People who no longer even have the attention span to read.”
He turns back to me. His expression softens, and that sly grin reappears. “I mean… those are the same people I usually hang out with in bars. So I’m not getting down on them. I’m just saying, that’s the way it is.”