Sympathy for the Devils

The Devil and Sonny Liston BY Nick Tosches. New York: Little, Brown. 272 pages. $14.

The cover of The Devil and Sonny Liston

For all his love of Dante, I don’t think Nick Tosches was much of a Boccaccio man. Still, he might have admired the saga that begins The Decameron. It is the story of one Ser Cepparello da Prato, un pessimo uomo, a dandy gentleman who wets his beak in every vice—blasphemy, forgery, booze, sex, crooked dice, marked cards, you name it. But nothing gives him a bigger kick than stirring up bad feelings, for, according to our storyteller, “the greater the evils he saw . . . the greater his happiness.” Dispatched to Burgundy to collect on the Boss’s loans, he falls deathly ill; his hosts worry that he’s too rotten to take Communion, which means they’ll have to toss his bones in the street “like a dog,” and that might not sit so well with his people back in the home country. Not to worry, Cepparello says. He calls in a priest and pulls off a confession number for the ages—a deadpan untrue tale of innocence and contrition that nearly seven hundred years later has lost little of its comic zing—that gets the fellas off the hook and in the process lines him up for sainthood. “Although his life was wicked and depraved,” our Florentine fabulist speculates, “it is possible that at the very point of death he became so contrite that God took pity on him and accepted him into His kingdom.” But who the hell is he to say? As our narrator immediately adds, the odds are he’s just as well with the devil.

Sharp-dressed tough guys, sucker’s rackets, verbal footwork, a whiff of sulfur: All of Cepparello’s tale is somewhere in Tosches’s wheelhouse, especially the fiery-pit stuff. He was shameless about sticking some diabolical marker in the title of about every second book he put out: There was Hellfire, the early Jerry Lee Lewis biography that made him famous, and the demonically peppered Power on Earth, about the Mafia banker Michele Sindona; his book of essays Save the Last Dance for Satan and his late novel Me and the Devil; and my favorite of the hellishly appellated, The Devil and Sonny Liston, a knockout title that Tosches nevertheless didn’t much care for. He had this thing about the Prince of Darkness, as you can tell, but what’s funny about Tosches and what old Yankees called the Deuce is that it’s never a hundred percent clear how seriously he really took the whole dirty business of soul-selling and crossroads and giving the Devil his due. When he passed away last year, I imagined that Nick’s vision of hell would be a place more lousy than wretched, a two-bit pit with just a couple of radio stations, one playing nonstop Eurythmics, the other, round-the-clock Phil Schaap (a friend added that, like in that famous Village Voice visit to hotheaded sportswriter Dick Young’s hell, in Nick’s inferno they’d serve only warm Bud Light).

“Shallow life, shallow ditch. Big life, big abyss,” Tosches once put it to an interviewer who asked him about the larger-than-life Jerry Lee Lewis (who miraculously outlived Nick). Or in a more expansive mood, as he wrote in a review of George Steiner’s collection My Unwritten Books that appeared in these pages, he mused: “After a while, if one is fortunate to live long, the negative future tense must cede with a sigh of finality to the negative past tense, and these vaporous conceptions must be given up as what was not written.” As a reader of Tosches’s, you never knew exactly when you’d come upon a sentence or two like the preceding one, but they arrived right on time nonetheless, where he’d bedevil his noir/wiseguy way of putting things with the most appalling Faulkneresque twist. It reminded me of a line that Ezra Pound—another hoodlum Tosches admired—wrote about Walter Pater, that he was capable of taking “the perhaps sole readable paragraph of Pico Mirandola and writing an empurpled descant.” (At least Nick stood in good company.)

Tosches’s association with Bookforum spanned almost a decade, beginning with a 1998 evisceration of Raymond Carver’s poetry (“desiccated and self-absorbed preciosity”). My favorite piece was one he wrote about the blurb Amiri Baraka gave The Devil and Sonny Liston. Nick had loved Baraka’s ’60s novel The System of Dante’s Hell and, asked to blurb a collection of the older writer’s works, had fired off an empurpled descant from the heart: “an evocation and an invocation both, of gods and of demons alike . . . a tour de force of rare black magic through which the streets of Newark and the in-dwellings of the soul are hot-wired into one of the most powerful and beautiful expressions of blind hatred and its wages since the Pentateuch.” Baraka’s in-kind payoff for the Sonny Liston book is no less heartfelt: He wrote, “OK, my man, the book’s out! After all, the guy’s from Jersey, with the rest of us mobsters.” (Baraka’s blurb—trimmed to a more sanguine “the book is out!”—graced the matte white back cover of The Devil and Sonny Liston. It was, Tosches wrote, “a fitting farewell to my days of dalliance as a blurb-fly.”)

Ticket for a Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston boxing match, 1965. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Ticket for a Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston boxing match, 1965. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Devil and Sonny Liston, Tosches’s terse biography of the feared heavyweight champ, began life as a piece in Vanity Fair and rounds out a trilogy of sorts that included Hellfire and Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, his remarkable life of crooner Dean Martin. Though filled with demons, the book originally bore the title Night Train, a reference to the R&B rocket that James Brown and His Famous Flames rode up the charts in 1962 and that accompanied Liston whenever he entered the ring. The history of that song is as slippery and repurposed as Liston’s past: A “brooding, tough-rhythmed evocation,” it was a blatant rip-off of a Duke Ellington tune by a former band member, Jimmy Forrest. “How fine and fitting it was that this act of inspired robbery should become the favorite record of Sonny Liston. . . . It was the record that he would play, again and again, at every workout, until it echoed within him, the soundtrack of blow and heartbeat, until the end.”

Fitting it was, not just because the song was born of larceny, as was Liston, who learned to fight while doing a stint in a Missouri prison for a string of nickel-and-dime stickups. “Same night, same train,” Nick writes about the James Brown remake, “but with a rhythm like a nasty automatic instead of Jimmy Forrest’s big bad long revolver.” Nowadays most people remember Liston only as the guy who went down in his 1965 rematch with Ali, felled by the most famous phantom punch in fistic history. What they forget is what a farce the first Ali fight a year earlier had been, when Liston, who couldn’t lose, threw in the towel halfway through the match. Or how much his 1962 title bout with the beloved Floyd Patterson had been cast as an epic battle of good and evil, with a near-total fixation on how much damage a dangerous, Mob-connected bad guy like Liston would do to the growing civil rights movement. He was feared and hated by everybody, black and white. (“He was the ultimate outlaw,” Tosches writes. “Man, those narrow-lapelled sharkskin suits, that felling left and that slaughterhouse right, and that scowl: his badness transcended race.”)

The loathing of Liston (the “ugly bear,” Ali and the sports-page hacks dubbed him) was nearly universal. The FBI opened a file on him, and J. Edgar Hoover called him “disgusting”; the Times rooted for anybody who fought him. The whole show around Liston was so fishy, they couldn’t even get the Ali rematch sanctioned in Nevada and had to settle for a youth hockey arena in Lewiston, Maine, where the locals griped about the “steep” $25 ticket price. (Even Mike Tyson at his lowest point could pull in a crowd.) There was no shortage of devils in Liston’s camp, and not just the underworld figures who called the shots, like Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, a mobster renowned enough in his infamy to inspire the young German painter Peter Schwarze to appropriate the name and its goombah glamour as his own.

The road through hell is not always straight. The Devil and Sonny Liston takes a meandering path from slavery to sharecropping and through Arkansas cotton country, where Liston was born, his actual birth year a mystery (Tosches thinks 1929 or 1930). It winds through St. Louis and the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City, up to Chicago and over to Philadelphia, to Miami and Maine, before taking a steep descent through some hellish last stops: Jersey City—where in 1970 Liston laced them up for the final time, against Nick’s old crony Chuck Wepner, for peanuts—and the end of the line, Las Vegas. He died there in the last days of 1970, under mysterious circumstances, as they say.

The end had come much earlier than the autopsy—which was inconclusive—somewhere after the Patterson fight. “The Devil gave, and the Devil took away,” Tosches writes. “For Sonny, had the Devil not given to him in the first place, there would never have been anything to take away: because you could be the best, toughest, killingest motherfucking fighter in the world, but without the Devil it did not much matter a good goddamn, because it was the Devil’s ring. There was no one left for Sonny to turn to; except to the Devil in himself.”

The Devil and Sonny Liston isn’t the best of the trilogy. Almost four decades old, Hellfire is still one of the greatest books ever written about rock ’n’ roll, and Dino is Tosches’s direct-from-the-bar-at-the-Sands masterpiece, an epic tour of the postwar American dream machine of music, Hollywood, Vegas, and TV. But The Devil and Sonny Liston remains a strange and alluring threnody, a dark tale unlit by sentimentality and one that said as much about Tosches as about Liston. It could not be otherwise, he acknowledged. “Given the choice between the sunny side of the street and the umbrous, I have perhaps more often than not chosen the latter.” May the shade of his memory long be a blessing.

Eric Banks is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities.