Title: Me and the Devil
Author: Nick Tosches
Published: 4 December 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown
Genre: literary fiction
Source: arc from the publisher via NetGalley
Nick is a bitter, alcoholic writer in his early sixties. “I looked like a man but I was not” he laments, complaining that he has become “a toothless wraith of a man that once had been” without even the inspiration to write (“I felt that there was nothing left to write. I was a poet without pen or drum.”). He scrapes by on a diet of booze, coffee and cigarettes, but as he crawls further from youth and closer to death he becomes “desperate to cling to another” even though human contact often repulses him. Despite his complaints though, he has no trouble picking up young women in bars and one day he meets Sandrine, who “liked to be raped after bathing in warm water and milk and brushing out her hair” (Nick repeats this description multiple times). Sandrine is the first of a series of women who Nick beds, bites, and drinks. He finds their young blood invigorating, as if drinking it restores his youth. He begins a relationship with a beautiful young student named Melissa, who entertains his sexual fantasies and new-found blood lust.
The blood changes Nick’s life – he feels like he’s getting younger and healthier; he stops drinking alcohol; he eats the finest foods money can buy. Soon, the changes become grandiose – he believes that he is turning into a god, and Melissa is a goddess; his exquisite meals are viewed as “Eucharistic”; and his habits become “rituals”.
If this were a fantasy novel, I would have accepted this as perfectly normal. However, the novel has the distinct feel of literary fiction that would never admit to being pure fantasy, leaving me with the suspicion that it’s Nick who simply can’t distinguish fantasy from reality. After all, this is a man who binge-drinks his way into blackouts and hallucinations. The ease with which he finds a string of beautiful young women who are willing to let him bite their thighs and drink their blood seems even less plausible than the idea that their blood restores his youth, and I became even more sceptical as Nick engaged in increasingly weird and violent sex scenes with women who actually wanted to be abused by a dirty old man. It’s too convenient, too much in tune with Nick’s desires. The fact that the story is narrated in the first person throws further doubt on Nick’s credibility. Although he has stopped writing, he finds a strange new piece that he can’t remember penning, giving us one of the first signs that his mind is not to be trusted.
Even if it weren’t already mentioned in the blurb, Nick’s eventual descent into madness and destruction would seem inevitable. As with his apotheosis, we never know how much of it is real or imagined, and Tosches has no interest in clarifying the matter. He simply offers this portrait of a mind in turmoil, and the reader cannot escape its subjectivity. And since Nick and Tosches have the same name, profession and age, you’re constantly, disturbingly aware that this is a kind of fictionalised autobiography, that Tosches is using Nick as a kind of puppet, or that he is at least toying with you by making you think so.
For the most part, I liked this aspect of the novel, which exists mostly in Nick’s interactions with the other characters. Unfortunately, he is a grumpy old asshole who spends most of his time alone, pontificating about all sorts of random crap.
Nick takes us through his day-to-day activities – cooking meals and eating them, taking medication, shopping, going to the bar, going to the doctor, having dinner with his good friend Keith Richards (yes, that Keith Richards), etc. He doesn’t drive, so he walks, giving him plenty of opportunity to comment on what he sees. Mostly, he complains about how much he hates modern-day New York and its inhabitants:
I looked down across the street at those who scurried to their daily servitude, with their Styrofoam cups of bitter watery coffee, their dupe’s containers of treacly Starbucks swill, their industrially dyed and flavored sugarwater “energy drinks,” their assembly line donuts, their stale rubbery bagels, their tasteless doughy croissants.
They were a funny lot, these white slaves of ignoble careers of lucrative indolence. To say that they were deserving of death would be to demean death. It would be without meaning as well, for they were in a way already dead. The jogging dead. Carbohydrate-conscious cadavers with frozen smiles of chilling insensate fake vibrancy on their dull scrubbed pampered faces.
I passed a new store, on Hudson Street, a sort of day care resort for yuppie mutts called Biscuits & Bath. It offered grooming, transportation, natural foods, puppy kindergarten, classes in basic manners, exercise programs, and socialization services. This neighborhood really was fucking going to hell. It was getting embarrassing just to live around here.
Ok, that last one is funny, and those quotes aren’t entirely unfair, but you see what I mean about Nick being bitter and ranting a lot. I did enjoy some of his meanderings, especially his descriptions of exquisite things – the luxurious pantihose and designer high heels he buys for Melissa to indulge one of his fantasies; the sublime food he enjoys at the heights of his experience; sets of beautiful hand-crafted knives with handles made from rare materials. I also learned a few things about pronunciation and grammar, but for the most part Nick is a boring, insufferable snob, and this novel is far too self-indulgent (whether the ‘self’ is just Nick or both Nick and Tosches, I’m not sure).
To the book’s credit (perhaps) it actually admits to these flaws. Nick, has several disparaging comments about his writing, and writing in general, and these actually fit my feelings about this novel:
George Orwell said, all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy. “Writing a book,” he said, “is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.”
The words that pursued these words did not speak to any of my questions, nor did they make anything more clear or less clear. I knew only that they sang to me, that their song was mine, and that they must be given form, metered to and arranged on the page in a way that captured and conveyed the sound and colors of their spell.
No one will ever see this. I am the you to whom I write. I am you. The only you.
What I took from this is the idea that he’s writing under a kind of compulsion that may well be as pathetic as the a screaming of a baby. His writing doesn’t have a message or theme (“these words did not speak to any of my questions, nor did they make anything more clear or less clear”); he just needs to express himself, and he does so without expecting anyone else to read it.
That could be an excuse for why the story is so self-indulgent, why it’s sometimes so boring and mundane, but also has so many graphic, increasingly violent sex scenes (actually, there isn’t always sex per se, but I should warn you that this book is not for sensitive readers). Nick can say things that he might not be able to say to others, and admit to doing horrible things. It could also explain why Nick feels at liberty to speak about women the way he does, referring to them as “galmeat”, casually throwing the word ‘rape’ around and saying things like
There was a lot of good-looking leg passing by out there. What a drag it was that rape involved so much exertion. Just to get some broad to be still while you jerked off on her calf or had her suck your cock without being properly introduced.
Me and the Devil is very much the narrative of an angry, arrogant, aging man saying what he wants and indulging his fantasies, the greatest of which is desire to reclaim his youth. A major part of that is his struggle with that titular devil, which could be an evil being or – more likely – Nick himself.
I can admire all this, to an extent. There’s some great writing here, along with the exploration of an interesting kind of psyche. I don’t like Nick at all, but sometimes it was interesting to be inside his head, and I like the idea of him expressing himself so freely, even though I’m often repulsed by what he says. I also like that the novel seems to admit to its flaws of self-expression, but at the same time those flaws make it pretty tedious to read, and for me that’s far worse than all the perversion. I think Nick is someone who has to resonate with you on a personal level, and if he doesn’t you’re unlikely to enjoy this novel very much. I didn’t.