Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Holy smoke

Posted By on Wed, Mar 13, 2002 at 12:00 AM

The Real Deal — its elusiveness, and its burial under plastic waste and cheap thrills — is Nick Tosches' specialty. His numerous magazine articles, novels, and biographies (of Jerry Lee Lewis, Dean Martin, and Sonny Liston, among others) personify real smarts, real life, and real humanity, coursing with libido, wise beyond wise, and wearing a nice suit. That said, with Tosches a statement that today rings with the sweet clarity of the Truth may sound tomorrow like charming affectation from a first-class jerk.

His most recent slim volume recounts his search for romance and authenticity in the form of opium, smoked in an opium den, in our present time, when opium dens no longer exist. It is a cranky book, but the search for perfection and bliss, artificial or otherwise, told without cynicism or humor is best left to doe-eyed self-help gurus. The motivations for Tosches' journey — part spiritual quest, part drug-score-to-end-all-drug-scores — are best summed up in the one sentence that summarizes the opening scene, set in a yuppified Italian restaurant in New York. It is a single perfect sentence, nestled among ornate, earnest descriptions of the charming and the exotic; authoritative history lessons; and world-weary, introspective commentary: "Fuck this world of thirty-five dollar onions and those who eat them."

Such simple and complete objections to the state of things are only rarely put to page. And like any indignant proclamation by any somewhat bilious curmudgeon, it's kind of stupid. In the process of advocating experiences he prefers — "artless and noble" wines over myth-inflated "jive-juice"; the expansive balance of opium over the mind-numbing zombification of heroin — Tosches brushes aside phony, monied pretensions to taste, but he also neglects the beauty of gray areas, misgivings, and failures. His world, aesthetically perfect as it is, remains a cloistered pile of books, records, and sweet dreams. As he has aged, Tosches' holy fire has started to seem like the claustrophobic irritability of an aging hipster, his proclamations tinged by the nostalgic bitterness of an old coot. Still, a blessing on Tosches, fuddy-duddy that he is, for his crackling, smart tale.

Ian Nagoski writes for the Baltimore City Paper. Send comments to


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