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Saint Nick
In his sprawling new novel, In the Hand of Dante, Nick Tosches crafts sacred profanity
BY MIKE MILIARD

NICK TOSCHES SHUFFLES into the Bristol Lounge at Bostonís Four Seasons looking a little worse for wear. Worse, at least, than he appears in the photograph ó all gravitas and vague menace ó that accompanies his new novel, In The Hand of Dante (Little, Brown). There, heís the quintessence of sang-froid: indifferent upward glance, jowly scowl, immaculate suit, pomaded coif. Here heís gaunt, draped in an untucked black shirt from which protrude two sinewy, freckled arms, the right one holding a half-empty bloody Mary. Heís in slight need of a shave. The jowls are still there. Now he sports a tight, slate-gray crew cut that gives him the ascetic appearance of a newly tonsured monk. But Nick Tosches can look however he wants. He seems secure in this fact as he slouches into a plush chair, methodically fits a Camel unfiltered into an obsidian cigarette holder, and lights it. Over the next hour he lights several more, gazing up and away through dissipating whorls of smoke as he speaks.

For more than 30 years, Tosches has been the nattily dressed scumbag sage of American letters, a cerebral, autodidactic hybrid of Jersey City hood and polymath savant. ("I read a lot," he says of his formative years ó despite the fact that they were spent in a town of "few books, many bookies.") His body of work harnesses these two extremes; commingling the sacred and the profane, it is as awash in Seagramís and semen as it is grounded in the dusky eloquence of Classical epics. Tosches is a writer whoíll weave a paragraph with gossamer Latinate prose, drop in some Hellenic or Hebrew characters incomprehensible to the lionís share of his readers, then pock it with seven or eight well-placed F-words. In his oeuvre, terms like "chthonic" and "threnody" (to name just two favorites) might share the page harmoniously with a phrase like "fucking discombobulated fucking stiff."

"Iíve always felt an affinity for both the high and the low," Tosches says, his Jersey accent sludge-thick. "Itís like Oscar Wilde says: ĎWe are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.í But if you look at the world, most people are actually too dumb to be either sacred or profane at this point. Everythingís politically correct, lukewarm, like that word in the book: i vigliacchi. It works for certain types of herbal tea, but not for life."

Toschesís writing career began in 1969, when he quit a job at New Yorkís Lovable Underwear Company and undertook the labors of an ink-stained wretch, toiling away at pittance-paying pieces for then-cool Rolling Stone, now-defunct Creem, and long-since-gone-to-dust Boston music rag Fusion. He once reviewed an album that didnít exist; later, he was fired from Rolling Stone for a collusion with fellow rockwrite revolutionary Richard Meltzer, in which they wrote reviews, then filed them under each otherís byline.

Tosches eventually classed up, a little, and began authoring dense, intelligent, provocative books whose subjects were in keeping with his attraction to the yin-yang dynamic of the lofty and the debauched. In his first book, 1977ís Country (Da Capo), he dug out the roots of a genre where God and the Devil had always been at loggerheads. In 1982ís Hellfire (Grove), widely considered the best rock-and-roll biography ever written, he plumbed the transcendent music and pitch-black soul of Jerry Lee Lewis in prose steeped in the cadences of Greek tragedy, the Old Testament, and The Sound and the Fury. Power on Earth (Arbor House, 1986) delves into the shadowy world of Michele Sindona, the nefarious Sicilian financier who dwelt at the nexus of supranational government, corporate cupidity, the Mafia, and the Vatican. Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams (Dell, 1992) was a paean to enigmatic J&B-toping Dean Martin, who survived in the land of mammon, Tosches surmises, by being what the Italians call a menefreghista: "one who simply does not give a fuck."

In the Hand of Dante ó Toschesís third novel, after the underworld sagas Cut Numbers (Back Bay, 1988) and Trinities (Doubleday, 1994) ó breathes vibrant life into Dante Alighieri, who was in many ways the antithesis of lassitude. The story (which begins with perhaps the most creepily evocative first line ever: "Louie pulled off his bra and threw it down upon the casket") is told in two distinct but interweaving narratives, taking place in the early 14th and early 21st centuries, respectively. In the first, Tosches limns an empathetic portrait of Danteís love and faith and doubt and foibles as he strives obsessively to hew from his soul The Divine Comedy, an epic that ascends from fundament to firmament, using the vernacular (caged in troublesome terza rima) to touch the face of God. In Toschesís flourishing prose, the poet becomes a conduit for complex disquisitions on medieval cosmology, linguistics, Gnosticism, rhetoric, and numerology.

The second narrative concerns a diabetic writer named Nick Tosches. A Dante enthusiast, heís enlisted by mob-connected pals (characters, Tosches tells me, who are roman à clef versions of wise guys he knew growing up) to verify the authenticity of something thatís fallen into their grubby hands: an original vellum manuscript of The Divine Comedy, written in Danteís own messy script. Itís an astonishing find ó and one that could net billions of dollars. Naturally, Tosches absconds with it in short order, with the events of September 11 soon providing plausible cover for his phony death.

As the two narratives intertwine, the preoccupations of Toschesís own character echoing Danteís driven quest, the aggregate becomes a grand, expansive treatment of themes Tosches has chased throughout his career: the act of creation, God and faith, love and death. Itís a novel he calls "my masterwork."

"It comes closest to writing exactly what I wanna write," Tosches says of the book heís been working on for seven years. "Iíve wanted to do this book for 15 years, long before I had the idea of what form it would take."

Dante (whom he calls "a real wop") is a long-standing idée fixe for Tosches. "I started reading him when I was 12 years old," he says. "My father was not a literate man, but he was from Italy, and everybody from there knows a little Dante. Heíd wake up with these hangovers and say, ĎAbandon hope all ye who enter here.í Everybody knows Dante. But nobody knows him. Through his poetry he expressed flaws that were as deep as his brilliance. And all the reams that have been written about him over the centuries have all been academic minutiae. No oneís ever said, ĎThis guy must have been a little ... fucked up.í Anyway, itís hard to read Dante when youíre a teenager. But over the years I got into him so heavily that I ended up trying to translate pieces of him myself. Which Iím still doing, although itís an impossible task."

Tosches, who is 53, began teaching himself Latin, Greek, and Medieval Italian when he was in his 20s. His aim, as he wrote in The Nick Tosches Reader (Da Capo, 2000), was to wipe away "the gauze of translation," and absorb in their purity "those ancient fragments that were the wisps of the source, the wisps of origin, the wisps of the first and truest expression of all that since had been said."

"The closer you can get to the actual source of something, the more pure, the more powerful, the more beautiful it is," he says now. "Go back to Homer, Sappho, the Old Testament. It even says so in the Old Testament: ĎThat which was is that which shall be.í "

But it was a passage in the New Testament, from the Gospel of Thomas, that impelled Tosches to write this novel: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

"If anybody gets anything out of this book, I hope thatís it," he says. "Itís such a beautiful and mysterious phrase. Is it honesty? Is it the God that lives within you? Is it evil? What ... the ... fuck ... is it? I think itís honesty. If you live in denial of honesty, if you live in fear, itíll destroy you. If you bring it forth, it will set you free."

It was also this philosophy that inspired Tosches to open the floodgates of his spleen for a long, vituperative swathe of the novel in which his character spits out an excoriating indictment of corporatized, homogenized, lobotomized Big Publishing. In a 25-page jeremiad, Tosches rails against the consolidation thatís led small American publishing houses to be swallowed whole by behemoths like Bertelsmann and other "kraut conglomerates," or communications corporations like Viacom, which care not a whit for books. As for his own publisher: "I speak to you as an AOL Time Warner product," Tosches laments. Unsurprisingly, he also has some choice words for Oprahís Book Club.

"I donít think they read," he says to me, lamenting the "new business-school arbiters of publishing, these subliterate Uriah Heeps in their blue chalk-stripe shirts ... these golem whose tastelessness in dress is perfectly reflected in their tastelessness in books," that he describes in the novel. "I literally donít think they read. I donít know what they do. They have meetings."

Someone like William Faulkner, Tosches writes, could never dream of being published today. In fact, he argues, the only reason Dante himself remains in print is that his books are "on the required-reading list and therefore on the compulsory-purchase list of almost every victim of the diploma-mill racket."

Some have accused Tosches, who enjoyed a goodly advance from Little, Brown, of biting the proverbial hand. To this he counters simply, "as I get older, Iím realizing one thing that does have a value is dignity.... If you start thinking, ĎI shouldnít say this, massa might be upset,í youíre fucked. Iím glad I did it, and I believe every word of it is true."

And besides, he does have kind words for Little, Brown ó even if it is an AOL Time Warner subsidiary. ("Or by the time you transcribe this," he says, "it could just be Time Warner and Steve Case could be looking for a job as your assistant.") Tosches calls his editor there "one of the last human beings" in the business. "Heís put himself out on a limb with this book in a lot of ways." Thatís why Tosches ó who hasnít toured behind a book in over a decade, and who formerly wouldnít assent to interviews unless they happened in the New York bistro where he eats at the same table almost daily ó is sitting with me now. "The least I can do is go along with him and not be a prick," he says. "And next time I wonít have to do anything."

And whatís it gonna be next time? "A lot of it depends on the fate of this book," says Tosches, his cigarette ash growing perilously long. "I know what I wanna write, itís in me, and I have one page written. But I think whatís really coming next is Iím gonna leave this country and go somewhere where I can really be isolated. Iíll be damned if Iím gonna let that rich brat from Texas, who has five speech writers, whoís never conceived a word heís spoken, have an effect on my fate. The worldís big, and life is short."

Speaking of life spans: until recently, a visitor to Toschesís write-up on Biography.com could read that he was born in Newark in 1949 and was "raised in Jersey City and New York by wolves from the other side." One could also discover that Nick Tosches died in 2021.

Sadly, an overly punctilious webmaster removed the latter date. "He made them take it out," Tosches says ruefully. "It was 2021, the anniversary of Danteís death; it just made so much sense. But," he pauses with a wry grin, "now that weíre in the 21st century ... I might postpone it."

Mike Miliard can be reached at mmiliard@phx.com

PHOTO BY JOEL VEAK

Issue Date: September 26 - October 3, 2002
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