Tosches, Nick 1949-
TOSCHES, Nick 1949-
PERSONAL: Born October 23, 1949, in Newark, NJ; son of Nick (a bartender) and Muriel Ann (Wynn) Tosches.
CAREER: Writer, 1968–. Has worked at a variety of jobs, including paste-up artist for an underwear company and a poisonous snake-hunter for the Miami Serpentarium. Collaborated with Homer Henderson on music CD Nick and Homer, 1998.
AWARDS, HONORS: Prix Calibre .38 for best first novel, 1988, for Cut Numbers; New York Times Notable Book of the Year, 1994, for Trinities; Italian-American Literary Achievement Award, 1993, for Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams.
Country: The Biggest Music in America, Stein & Day (New York, NY), 1977, revised edition published as Country: Living Legends and Dying Metaphors in America's Biggest Music, Scribner (New York, NY), 1985, 2nd revised edition published as Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock 'n' Roll, Da Capo (New York, NY), 1996.
Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1982.
Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll, Scribner (New York, NY), 1984, 2nd revised edition, Da Capo (New York, NY), 1999.
Power on Earth: Michele Sindona's Explosive Story, Arbor House (New York, NY), 1986.
Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1992.
The Devil and Sonny Liston, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2000.
The Nick Tosches Reader, Da Capo (New York, NY), 2000.
Where Dead Voices Gather, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2001.
The Last Opium Den, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2002.
King of the Jews, Ecco (New York, NY), 2005.
(With Richard Meltzer) Frankie: Part 1, Illuminati (Los Angeles, CA), 1985.
(With Richard Meltzer) Frankie: Part 2, Illuminati (Los Angeles, CA), 1987.
Cut Numbers, Harmony (New York, NY), 1988.
Trinities, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1994.
In The Hand of Dante, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2002.
(With Hubert Selby, Jr.) Blue Eyes and Exit Wounds (spoken word CD), 1998.
Chaldea (poetry), Cuz Editions, 1999.
Author of foreword, The Italian American Reader: A Collection, edited by Bill Tonelli, Morrow (New York, NY), 2003. Contributor to periodicals, including New York Times, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Penthouse, Open City, GQ, Long Shot, Contents, Creem, Vanity Fair, and Esquire. Author's works have been translated into nine languages.
ADAPTATIONS: Trinities was adapted as an audiobook, read by actor Jerry Orbach.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Production of screenplay Spud Crazy; further musical collaborations with Homer Henderson.
SIDELIGHTS: Nick Tosches is an expert on early rock and country music and a biographer of popular and criminal culture whose writing was described as "Tom Wolfe married to Screamin' Jay Hawkins," by Time critic Richard Corliss. Tosches's work is most often praised for its vivid portrayal of popular history and the wild and seedy aspects of American culture through its flamboyant prose. His books on music combine knowledge of a particular genre's history while evoking its mood. Country: The Biggest Music in America recalls the feverish violence of "hillbilly music" in the days before it became a profitable industry in Nashville, Tennessee. In Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll, the author offers brief portraits, many based on interviews, of twenty-five little-known musicians from the pre-Elvis Presley era. Washington Post Book Review writer Matt Schudel called this work "one of the best books ever written about rock 'n' roll."
Tosches moved into a purely fictional realm in 1988 with Cut Numbers, his first solo novel after collaborating on two books with Richard Meltzer. Described as a "muscular and incendiary study of criminals caught on the lowest rung of the Mob's ladder," by Gary Dretzka in the Chicago Tribune Books, the novel is about a small-time Brooklyn loan shark who is as colorful as many of the characters in Tosches's nonfiction works. Although the author's style was deemed "overheated" and "pretentious" by Bethami Probst in the New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Charles Champlin called the book an "entertaining and illuminating debut." Six years later, Tosches followed Cut Numbers with a second novel, Trinities, which deals with the international heroin trade. The New York Times selected Trinities as a Notable Book of the Year.
Tosches returned to popular biography with The Devil and Sonny Liston. Writing for the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, Stan Hochman panned the volume as "a mediocre book … that feebly attempts to explain the belligerent life and mysterious death of the scowling former heavyweight champion." In contrast, New York Times Book Review critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt the book as "unusual" and credited Tosches with being an "exhaustive reporter" who "seems to have dug up everyone ever connected to Liston and got them to talk, particularly about the network of mob connections." Vincent Patrick, also writing in the New York Times Book Review, felt that Tosches "gives us a bigger story than that of Sonny Liston, placing him in the context of his time with respect to both the corrupt world of boxing in the 1950s and the racial landscape of America from the early 1930s until Liston's wife discovered his dead body in their Las Vegas home on Jan. 5, 1971."
The Nick Tosches Reader presents a six-hundred-page retrospective of Tosches's career by bringing together much of his writing from his early years as a music critic, along with his fiction, poetry, investigative journalism, social criticism, magazine profiles, and excerpts from his biographies. Writing in Books Roundup, Burl Gilyard quipped that the book could just as well have been titled "The Thin Line between Crap and Genius," going on to note that it "collects plenty of both." Nevertheless, Gilyard granted that "Tosches has mastered a tough-guy-with-the-soul-of-apoet writing style," and observed: "Whereas Hunter S. Thompson has devolved into sad self-parody, Tosches—who also has a touch of the crank in him—has steadily gotten better." Referring readers to Tosches's other books in favor of some of the excerpts and shorter works included in The Nick Tosches Reader, Gilyard singled out the long, novella-like "magazine profiles of George Jones, mob lawyer Sidney Korchak, and the original Vanity Fair story on boxer Sonny Liston" as the "best work collected here."
Tosches's next completed Where Dead Voices Gather, a "truly remarkable book" that "takes on obscure minstrel/country-jazz singer Emmett Miller," commented Library Journal contributor James E. Perone. With Miller as his touchstone, Tosches explores not only the musician's storied background but also the history of American music. He outlines Miller's early days as a jazz-era blackface performer, his travels through early American minstrel shows, his tours in the prime of Vaudeville, and his fading days as motion pictures rose to become the prominent form of entertainment. The author includes a number of firsthand accounts of contemporary musicians and performers, too. His approach is scholarly, and he neither denounces nor overemphasizes the blatant racist humor of the early blackface performers and minstrel shows. The yodeling Miller influenced early country performer Jimmie Rodgers and once boasted Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey as members of his band. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that Tosches's quest to find out about Miller, and the book that resulted, are "irresistible." The author's "scholarly yet irreverent style makes this book eminently readable, appealing to fans of both music and American history alike," commented Brendan Dowling in Booklist.
King of the Jews finds Tosches once again turning to biography. This time his subject is Arnold Rothstein, who in the 1920s was a figure famed for his ostentatious wealth and his ties to organized crime. Rothstein's reputation also included the widely held suspicion that he was responsible for the fixed 1919 World Series game. He was "a gambler, a rain-maker, and as crooked as a Coney Island pretzel," commented Chris Nashawaty in Entertainment Weekly. Tosches does not stop merely at providing a biographical account of Rothstein's life; he also "offers deft ruminations on large matters under cover of the biography of a gangster," observed a Kirkus Reviews contributor. He discourses on topics such as Hebrew etymology, the corruption of Tammany Hall-era New York, Jewish culture and religion, New York City history, and more. The Kirkus Reviews critic concluded that the book amounts to "Tosches's Theory of Everything, disguised as biography: energetic, histrionic, polemical and heaps of fun." Library Journal reviewer Karen Sandlin Silverman commented: "Though Tosches himself takes some getting used to, this biographical account is riveting."
Returning to fiction several years after publishing Trinities, Tosches published In The Hand of Dante in 2002. Here, Tosches casts himself in the lead role, much as famed poet Dante did in his Divine Comedy. The premise in the story involves a previously unknown room in the Vatican, where a scholar has uncovered a handwritten manuscript of Dante's masterwork. Worth in excess of a billion dollars on the black market, the manuscript becomes a target for a variety of criminals who want it. These include Louie, a cross-dressing gangster with a predilection for violence. Louie calls on the fictional Nick Tosches, a rough-and-tumble author with mob connections who is also a Dante expert, to validate the manuscript as being original. Tosches speeds through Arizona, Chicago, Paris, and London in his attempts to authenticate the manuscript and determine its worth. Even in his fiction, Tosches is unable to resist the urge to pepper his story with cultural criticism and polemics, including a scathing section on the publishing industry and its consolidation into the control of a handful of conglomerates and mega-corporations. "The ending is a bit of a letdown," stated a Publishers Weekly writer, "but fans of the one-man literary show that is Nick Tosches will doubtless love this book." Booklist reviewer Benjamin Segedin remarked that "this book boldly treads the line between high art and vulgarity, begging the question as to whether it is a masterpiece or just plain pretentious."
Tosches once told CA: "'Nothing is what it seems. Nothing is new under the sun.' Looking back, these are the two currents that seem to run through everything I've written. For me, fiction has always been the main event, with Hesiod, Dante, William Faulkner, and Thomas Mann being the guys to beat. Cut Numbers, my first novel, was sort of a pilgrim's progress set in the milieu of the Italian-American shadowland, a work in which I tried to capture the darker breezes and shifting illusions that had been a part of my own cultural and spiritual patrimony.
"As I wrote to my editor and publisher in the cover letter accompanying my second novel: 'Trinities is a tale of evil. The story at its heart is that of the apocalyptic final battle for control of the world's international heroin trade, a war between the black-shadow forces of East and West, Triad and Mafia. Like the symbols of sacred goodness that cast those monstrous shadows—the earth-heaven-man trinity of the Asian triads and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of the Mafia—the world itself as darkened by those shadows becomes a deadly paradise where God and Serpent lie down together and horror lurks in every flowering beauty…. The battle that unfolds within the central character and others, a battle between inner darkness and light, right and wrong, love and its renunciation, is as compelling as the bigger conflagration that rages around them.' Trinities is the one I always wanted to write, the one that all that came before made possible."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Libraries, September, 2000, Bill Ott, review of The Devil and Sonny Liston, p. 106.
Billboard, June 17, 1992, Chris Morris, review of Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, p. 35.
Biography, fall, 2000, F. X. Toole, review of The Devil and Sonny Liston, p. 813.
Black Issues Book Review, September, 2000, Glenn Townes, review of The Devil and Sonny Liston, p. 49.
Book, September-October, 2002, James Sullivan, review of In the Hand of Dante, p. 77.
Booklist, October 1, 1994, Brad Hooper, review of Trinities, p. 240; February 1, 2000, Wes Lukowsky, review of The Devil and Sonny Liston, p. 995; September 1, 2000, Bill Ott, review of The Devil and Sonny Liston, p. 52; July, 2001, Brendan Dowling, review of Where Dead Voices Gather, p. 1968; July, 2002, Benjamin Segedin, review of In the Hand of Dante, p. 1798.
Books Roundup, May 10, 2000, Burl Gilyard, review of The Nick Tosches Reader.
Business Week, May 22, 2000, "Sonny's Demons," review of The Devil and Sonny Liston, p. 20E12.
Economist, October 19, 2002, "The History Channel; New Thrillers," review of In the Hand of Dante.
Entertainment Weekly, August 7, 1992, Tim Appelo, review of Dino, p. 54; September 6, 2002, Troy Patterson, "Hell Raiser: You Like Sex, Violence, and Rapturous Poetry in Your Fiction: Nick Tosches Delivers It All with His Incendiary Novel," review of In the Hand of Dante, p. 76; May 13, 2005, Chris Nashawaty, review of King of the Jews, p. 95.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 17, 2002, Josh Shaffer, review of In the Hand of Dante.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2002, review of In the Hand of Dante, p. 915; April 1, 2005, review of King of the Jews, p. 409.
Kliatt, September, 2002, Tom Adamich, review of The Devil and Sonny Liston, p. 46.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, May 26, 2000, Stan Hochman, "Few Come Away Unscarred in New Book on Sonny Liston."
Library Journal, April 15, 2000, Colin Carlson, review of The Nick Tosches Reader, p. 114; August, 2001, James E. Perone, review of Where Dead Voices Gather, p. 114; November 15, 2002, Marc Kloszewski, review of In the Hand of Dante, p. 104; May 1, 2005, Karen Sandlin Silverman, review of King of the Jews, p. 97.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 10, 1988, Charles Champlin, review of Cut Numbers, p. 8.
New York Times Book Review, October 16, 1988, Bethami Probst, review of Cut Numbers, p. 16; April 10, 2000, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "A Hazy Start, a Dark End, a Champion in Between," review of The Devil and Sonny Liston; April 30, 2000, Vincent Patrick, "Fight Club," review of The Devil and Sonny Liston.
People, August 24, 1992, Lorenzo Carcaterra, review of Dino, p. 26.
Philadelphia Inquirer, May 22, 2000, Dan DeLuca, review of The Devil and Sonny Liston.
Publishers Weekly, May 18, 1992, review of Dino, 52; August 15, 1994, review of Trinities, p. 85; November 7, 1994, review of Trinities (audiobook), p. 32; March 13, 2000, review of The Devil and Sonny Liston, p. 69, and review of The Nick Tosches Reader, p. 70; April 10, 2000, Michael Coffey, "Darkness and Light," interview with Nick Tosches, p. 70; July 25, 2001, review of Where Dead Voices Gather, p. 63; November 26, 2001, review of The Last Opium Den, p. 50; July 22, 2002, review of In the Hand of Dante, p. 157; April 25, 2005, review of King of the Jews, p. 50.
South Florida Sun-Sentinel, September 20, 2002, Chauncey Mabe, review of In the Hand of Dante.
Sports Illustrated, April 17, 2000, Richard O'Brien, "Books: This New Bio of Sonny Liston Casts Even More Shadows on One of Boxing's Darkest Figures," review of The Devil and Sonny Liston, p. 33.
Time, August 24, 1992, Richard Corliss, review of Dino, p. 64; April 24, 2000, Daniel Okrent, review of The Devil and Sonny Liston, p. 80.
Time International, March 4, 2002, William T. Vollman, "The Dope Trail: A New Book Sets out to Find the Fabled Excesses of an Opium Den," review of The Last Opium Den, p. 48.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), July 31, 1988, Gary Dretzka, review of Cut Numbers, p. 4.
Video Age International, November-December, 1992, Fred Hift, review of Dino, p. 8.
Washington Post Book World, September 30, 1989, Matt Schudel, review of Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll, p. 11.
BookReporter.com, http://www.bookreporter.com/ (October 5, 2005), Joe Hartlaub, review of In the Hand of Dante.
City Pages, http://www.citypages.com/ (May 10, 2000), review of The Nick Tosches Reader.
Exit Wounds, http://www.exitwounds.com/ (October 5, 2005), biography of Nick Tosches.
Publishers Weekly Web site, http://www.publishersweekly.com/ (August 8, 2000), "Nick Tosches: Darkness and Light."
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (November 12, 1999), Rex Doane, "Nick Tosches, The Man in the Leopard-Skin Loafers," interview with Nick Tosches.