Nick Tosches: The Nick Tosches Reader

Nick Tosches
The Nick Tosches Reader
Da Capo Press

THE PUBLISHERS COULD have titled this anthology The Thin Line Between Crap and Genius. The Nick Tosches Reader, as it's called instead, collects plenty of both: hallucinatory prose fragments, record reviews, alleged record reviews that never mention the record, profiles, obituaries, poems, song lyrics, journal scribblings, reveries, letters to his agent, one e-mail message, assorted fiction and fantasies, and several book excerpts. Much of what makes Tosches a great writer is his fearlessness, his willingness to take chances, and his absolute refusal to apologize if he fails. And the same principle seems to have guided the selection of what appears in this hefty volume. Just to make sure the reader is aware of such failures--or to inoculate himself against them--Tosches annotates some of the entries with scabrous self-deprecation.

Over the last 30 years, Tosches has mastered a tough-guy-with-the-soul-of-a-poet writing style. As this book reveals, his knack for juxtaposing the profane with elegant quasi-biblical prose was there from the start. Witness his 1971 review of Black Sabbath's Paranoid for Rolling Stone, which only indirectly addresses the album, instead devoting a few hundred words to an enumeration of the sexual acts he'd like to perform on a medieval nun.

Sexual malfeasance is a recurring subject in this volume, as are a host of other obsessions: Jerry Lee Lewis, Dean Martin, the Mafia, booze, and the "mysterious blackface Georgia cracker jazz singer" Emmett Miller. Some of these topics receive better treatment in full-length Tosches titles. The review of a Dean Martin album first published in 1978 can't match the full boozy glory of Dino, the brilliant biography that found Tosches a wider audience 14 years later. One would similarly be well-advised to track down Tosches's classic Jerry Lee Lewis bio, Hellfire, instead of settling for the colorful but brief feature in the Reader.

While seemingly exhaustive, the nearly 600-page volume certainly doesn't collect or touch on all of Tosches's stray work. For instance, you won't find any excerpts from the nadir of his hackdom, the Hall and Oates bio Dangerous Dances (alluded to here in a note by Tosches as "the worst extended piece of shit I ever wrote"). Missing, too, are his liner notes from mid-Seventies-era Moe Bandy albums. No matter: Any self-respecting fan of unreconstructed honky-tonk should own the Moe Bandy albums anyway.

Whereas Hunter S. Thompson has devolved into sad self-parody, Tosches--who also has a touch of the crank to him--has steadily gotten better. Among the best work collected here are his long-form magazine profiles of George Jones, mob lawyer Sidney Korshak, and the original Vanity Fair story on boxer Sonny Liston, recently expanded into a book (The Devil and Sonny Liston). Each reads more like a novella than a mere profile. In Tosches's reverent hands, his subjects become almost mythic in stature, while being defined in no small part by their human frailties. The Nick Tosches who emerges from this anthology is much the same kind of figure.

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