Book Review: Me and the Devil by Nick Tosches

Me and the Devil by Nick Tosches
Me and the Devil by Nick Tosches
Little, Brown and Company 2012

I’m a great admirer of Nick Tosches. More than any other living author, for me he defines erudition. He is, without doubt, one of the great prose stylists of the English language. His artistry and craftsmanship, the astounding depth and breadth of his intellect, is unparalleled.

But Me and the Devil is disappointing. It still has all the style and intellect I expect from Mr. Tosches—his typical hallmarks are as much in evidence in this work as in any of his others.

But I walked away from this book asking the one question I’ve never asked about any of his work before:

What was the point of all this?

Me and the Devil ultimately had little effect on me whatsoever. Far worse than if I’d actively disliked this book, I find myself indifferent towards it. And that’s just about the worst thing anyone can say about a Nick Tosches book. I wish I could love this book, I wish I could outright hate it.

I wish it could be anything to me other than… meh. Even with his stylistic accomplishment and intellectual fireworks, it’s still just kinda… meh.

Like his previous novels, Me and the Devil is a compelling mix of fiction and autobiography, a narrative world in which the reader can never be certain how much is true and how much is imagination. The distinction between the main character and the author is deeply obscured.

There is about this book something which feels to me disjointed. Compared to his previous works, this one seems to lack focus.

There’s too much navel-gazing going on here, and not enough storytelling. Not that his previous works don’t contain plenty of navel-gazing, but telling the story always came first.

In Me and the Devil the story feels secondary. I’m not entirely sure he ever really figured out what the story was even supposed to be.

One of the most impressive aspects of Mr. Tosches’ body of work is the depth of learning on display. He’s strikingly well-educated and his understanding of classic literature, history, philosophy, and Christian theology is astounding. Intellectually, he’s the kind of person all traditionally well-educated people aspire to be.

Of particular note is the breadth of his reading. The man is voracious—he has intimate and detailed knowledge of the entire corpus of the Western Canon at his fingertips. His literary alter-ego, who populates all of his works of fiction, is characterized by his ability to reference any and all of the foundational works of our culture, as appropriate.

Reading Nick Tosches is a crash course in Western intellectual history. This is a man who has devoted his life to studying it.

For the first time, though, in Me and the Devil, I wonder if, perhaps, in the end, his admirable learning isn’t much more than merely parroting the wit and wisdom of those philosophers and writers who came before him. As eloquently as he expresses himself, as thoroughly as he displays his knowledge of their work, I’m not sure there’s much of anything in this book that isn’t just him regurgitating the ideas of his predecessors.

So it’s not that his great intelligence isn’t still fully on display, and it’s certainly not that his incredible depth of learning isn’t still breathtakingly impressive. But in this book, it feels like showing off has become more important to him than actually saying anything of substance. It starts to feel like a gimmick, a stale parlor trick.

Another defining characteristic of Mr. Tosches’ fiction is his brutal self-criticism. He’s merciless in calling out his own hypocrisy and tallying his personal failures.

I find, now, that I no longer have much patience for his crap. His constant contradictions of himself, his undercutting, his abrupt tonal shifts, his innate contrariness, no longer come across as honest and insightful, but as a dodge.

Like his myriad literary allusions and philosophical references, his self-criticism now feels formulaic. It feels like Nick Tosches trying too hard to do Nick Tosches.

Through both his fiction and nonfiction writings, Mr. Tosches has established himself as one of our harshest and most incisive cultural critics. It’s an understatement to say that he takes issue with much of what he sees in present-day society.

I used to find such a dark delight in his evisceration of modern culture. And while I still agree with many of his individual criticisms of, and disappointments in, our present-day world, for the first time I find his tone of superiority far more grating than insightful.

Honestly, despite the sheer beauty and power of his prose, he’s beginning to sound more and more like a crotchety old man yelling for the damn kids to get off his lawn.

It’s beginning to smack not just of his usual superiority, but almost of desperation—a desperation to believe in his own continued relevance in a world that has become increasingly alien to him.

A desperation to believe that his hypocrisy can be transubstantiated into something admirable simply because he names it hypocrisy.

A desperation to believe that the life he chose to live was, in fact, as great and glorious, as brutally honest, as significant and filled with power as he wanted it to be.

He’s becoming a bit pathetic. He’s beginning to wear thin. And his brutal, unflinchingly self-critical honesty, while still admirable, is no longer enough of a virtue to make up for that.

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