Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Devilishly good writer deserves some sympathy

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Me and the Devil

By Nick Tosches

Little, Brown, 387 pages, $30

KEITH Richards, a pretty good guitar player who sports the most lived-in face in the world, blurbs Me and the Devil: "Nick Tosches knows the devil as well as any man has."

Tosches, a well-known New York journalist and a pretty good writer whose jacket photo suggests he likewise has a few off-road miles on him, returns the favour with several long passages in this entertaining but disturbing novel. The narrator -- also named Nick -- and Keef dine elegantly while discussing art, women and drinking blood.

Perhaps they have visited the crossroads at midnight together.

Tosches has penned a long list of novels, magazine articles and non-fiction works including diabolically titled biographies of American transgressors such as musician Jerry Lee Lewis (Hellfire) and boxer Sonny Liston (The Devil and Sonny Liston).

Me and the Devil tells the tale of an affluent 60-ish New York writer who occasionally overdoses on booze and rough sex with much younger women, one of whom he seduces with quotations, real or imagined, from John Milton, Mary Shelley and Lefty Frizzell.

But Nick's life veers into lycanthropy and murder -- or does it?

He discusses these sensations with his alter ego, the devil -- or does he?

He succumbs to alcohol poisoning, then veers back to his version of health - or does he?

On this pilgrimage to his personal hell, Nick takes care to record the progress of the seasons by observing full moons from his apartment or his favourite night streets of New York.

He cannot decide whether it is the moon or some other force that performs foul deeds through him, although he is pretty sure he isn't to blame.

But when two young women die, their throats slashed, just after he speaks to them on the street, he discovers blood on one of his beloved knives.

And then there are those unusual outbursts.

"It was as if some seething vengeance or fury were trying to force its escape from me through any means, any fissure possible. In fact, these were not fits of temper that I felt," he writes.

"They were more like the spontaneous turmoilings of an unfamiliar presence seeking vent. I wondered if what I had done in the doorway was but a lashing forth by this presence as well. It must have been, for it was not I. It could not have been I."

When not busy denying his dark deeds, Old Nick, a self-proclaimed foodie and oenophile, denounces crass modern life as represented by the "flashy gimmicks" of ebooks, by "treacly Starbucks swill," and especially by "yuppie window vermin in their designer athletic fashions" that he observes as he walks past a gym.

He even rails against writing.

"There were no holy words, no words that bore wisdom. Holiness and wisdom belonged to silence alone. To believe otherwise was vain arrogance; and worse, to know this and to persevere in the exaltation of words was to become the cheap carny barker of lies peddled as truth -- a degradation and a wrongfulness, and nothing more."

Fortunately, Tosches' writing belies this nihilistic assertion. The novel employs many words that may drive readers to a dictionary, among them eidolon, falcated, marasmus and velleity.

Such demonstrated lust for language is enough to drive a reader to sympathy even for a devil.

Duncan McMonagle tries to consult a dictionary daily while teaching journalism at Red River College. Follow him on Twitter @dmcmonagle.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 J9

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