In 1979, the rock-criticism anthology Stranded was rejected by its original publisher because of objections to the opening essay by music biographer Nick Tosches, specifically to the line, “Fuck me till blood runs down my leg.” That line echoes through Tosches’ new novel, which features a lot of sex and a lot of blood, usually in the same scenes. In his early work, Tosches came across as the kind of grungy but literate hipster who wanted to convey the impression that he’d never been young: He’d been around forever, soaking up wisdom from the stool at the far end of the bar. Me And The Devil is Tosches’ confession that, now that he’s in his 60s, he misses his callow youth more than he ever thought he would. The novel is narrated by “Nick,” a hard-drinking writer who has entered his “fifth decade of life” and who lives in the Tribeca area, with his memories and his shelves of irreplaceable, beautifully designed books. He feels so alienated from the world around him and from what his beloved New York has become, that he’s lost the will to write. But he’s begun to experience stirrings, a hopeless need to embrace someone younger and more alive.
It turns out the need isn’t that hopeless after all: A mysterious young woman named Sandrine picks him up in a bar and takes him home. When the two make love, he bites her thigh and draws blood, and this primal act changes him, energizes him. It also seems to make him sexually irresistible, and soon he’s bedding, and biting, a steady succession of stunning women young enough to be his granddaughters. (He mentions in passing that he did also approach women closer, by a couple of decades, to his own age, but was surprised to learn that the older the women, the less likely they were to be sexually adventurous enough to keep up with him.)
Tosches writes about no-holds-barred sex with gusto, though the women Nick tussles with never threaten to become characters. They’re just adoring blow-up dolls, described as looking like supermodels and decorated with enough impressive qualities—mainly, the ability to appreciate an older man of letters who can educate them on the finer things in life—that their adoration reflects well on him. At the same time, Tosches must have worried that readers might need more convincing that his doppelgänger is as cool as he says; that is probably the likeliest explanation for the cameo appearance by Keith Richards (who assures Nick that overcoming an addiction to the blood of young lovers makes kicking heroin look like a walk in the park) and the scene in which Nick mentions to one of his fuck-buddies that he knows Johnny Depp. (Blurbs from Richards and Depp are prominently displayed on the book jacket.)
An acolyte of Requiem For A Dream author Hubert Selby Jr., Tosches often seems to want to rip the lid off polite society and take the reader “to the edge” of something—like Andy Samberg in the SNL Digital Short, “Threw It On The Ground,” he isn’t gonna be part of your system—but his greatest saving grace is that he can be hysterically funny. The funny moments here are a little slippery. When Tosches is eavesdropping on passers-by and mishears “Heraclitus” for “her clitoris,” or hits on a prospective conquest with such come-on lines as “Can you control the tides by crossing and uncrossing your legs?” and “Do you like to watch old men masturbate and know that they too were once young?”—thankfully, she agrees to go to bed with him before he asks if she’s ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight—the effect is pure self-parody, and it’s hard to know whether this is intentional. (The best joke in the book is the fleeting suggestion that this novel may be Tosches’ bid for some of that sweet sexy-vampire-book money.)
Less amusingly, Tosches flaunts his fearless-asshole indifference to political correctness by referring to one pick-up’s makeshift bondage rack as “nigger-rigged.” And his grousing about the death of print and the corporate evil represented by reading on an electronic device isn’t any more scintillating than any other old coot’s. Short on plot and twice as long as it needs to be, Me And The Devil is too firmly situated inside its author’s head to come alive as fiction. But there are still passages here when Nick Tosches’ head is a thrilling place to be, especially when he’s lit up by the feeling that a reckless, youthful devotion to the writer’s life has come back to bite an old man in the ass. He may not have seen nostalgia for past glories coming, but he isn’t about to go gentle into that good night.