Devil and Sonny Listonby Nick Tosches
Author Biography: Nick Tosches was born in Newark and schooled in his father's Jersey City bar. He is the author of Dino, an acclaimed
Nick Tosches's brutal, stunning, and widely praised biography of Sonny Liston-the world heavyweight champion who hit harder than any man alive, and who embodied everything that is compelling and terrifying about boxing.
Author Biography: Nick Tosches was born in Newark and schooled in his father's Jersey City bar. He is the author of Dino, an acclaimed biography of Dean Martin, among other books. He is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair.
Time Out New York
The New York Times Book Review
- Little, Brown and Company
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- 5.57(w) x 8.23(h) x 0.78(d)
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The corpse was rolled over and lay face down on the metal slab. It was then that the coroner saw them: the copper-colored whipping welts, old and faint, like one might imagine to have been those of a driven slave.
To say that Charles Liston had been a slave would be to render cheap metaphor of the life of a man. And yet those scars on his back were as nothing to deeper scars, the kind that no coroner could ever see, scars of a darkness far less imaginable than those from any lash. Charles Liston, the most formidable of men, the most unconquerable of heavyweight boxers, had been enslaved by the forces of that darkness: enslaved, conquered, and killed by them.
Born with dead man's eyes, he had passed from the darkness of those scars on his back to the darkness of the criminal underworld, to a darkness beyond, a darkness whose final form was the last thing his eyes ever saw.
I remember the figure of Sonny Liston from my boyhood: distant, ominous, enigmatic, alluring. It now strikes me as odd looking back at that boyhood that a black man could have fascinated me so. In 1962, the year that Sonny won the heavyweight title, I was in the eighth grade of P.S. 24 in Jersey City. The school was predominantly black, and intramural racial conflict was the fore-most extracurricular activity. There were skirmishes every day, full-blown gang fights every Friday afternoon: black against white, white against black. The mutual hostility had always been there, but in the fall, winter, and spring of 1962Ð3, the brew of that hostility boiled over. Friendshipbetween black and white was driven underground, or ended. The punishment for consorting with the enemy was to be beaten, damned, persecuted, and ostracized, not only by one's own kind but by the enemy's kind as well. To black and white alike, such behavior was contra naturam, an assault and a crime against all that was as it should be.
At this same time, LeRoi Jones was writing a novel about the evil spirit of those days. In The System of Dante's Hell, published in 1965, it was as if Jones, setting out to exorcise evil, was overtaken by it, and his book emerged as one of the most powerful and beautiful expressions of blind hatred and its wages since the Pentateuch. The hell he chose in which to set his story was the city of Newark, where he had his roots, and where I was born and partly raised. I must have read the paperback in 1966, and I was in Newark in the summer of 1967 the Summer of Love, those hippie assholes called it when the riots flared. For me, it was like the force of Jones's vision erupting from the underworld regions through the streets. I loved it. It had nothing to do with black and white, it merely was: an emanation of all that destroys us from within, wild and deadly and beyond the lie of law. I remember the old Jewish shopkeepers fleeing, painting the words SOUL BROTHER on their storefront windows, in the vain hope that their enterprise would be perceived as black and therefore spared.
But no one, black or white, was spared. There was much talk about "black rage" a catch phrase that was brought to us by the same mass merchants who brought us "summer of love" and blacks themselves bought into it, for the black is no less a fool than the white and will cling to any rationalization that masks or justifies, however fatuously, the part of our nature that seems to belie our humanity: the part of our nature that, in our vanity and denial, we have come to call inhuman, a word that has barely changed since the Latin inhumanus of the ancient Romans, whose empire was built upon slavery.
As I remember those old Jewish shopkeepers hurriedly painting their windows, so I remember the self-proclaimed black radicals, like Jones, having their dashikis made by those same old Jewish tailors. It was as close to Africa as they had ever been, the corner of Broad and Market in downtown Newark. A little old Jewish tailor stitching raiments of polyester pride for a bunch of guys who were suddenly talking about slavery as if it were a personal experience and about Africa as if it was their true home. It was a minstrelsy skit of a new age: the angry young Afro-American and his tailor.
LeRoi Jones, 1964: "Sonny Liston was the big black Negro in every white man's hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under." Liston, wrote Jones, was "the bad nigger," the "heavy-faced replica of every whipped-up woogie in the world."
But nobody ever saw Sonny Liston in a f*ing dashiki. Sonny Liston knew you could see it in those dead man's eyes that there was no black and white; there was only that hallway: your hallway, my hallway, Jones's hallway, the unlighted hallway of the world.
I think now that my boyhood fascination with Sonny Liston had to do with his being as feared and hated by blacks as by whites. He was the ultimate outlaw. Man, those narrow-lapelled sharkskin suits, that felling left and that slaughterhouse right, and that scowl: his badness transcended race.
As years passed, the more I learned of boxing, and the more fighters I saw fight, the more I knew that there was no other fighter like Sonny Liston. There never had been, and there never would be. And the more I lived and learned of other things, the more I began to feel that the secret history of Sonny Liston would reveal one of the greatest Mob tales ever told, a tale that ended in a murder mystery whose solution seemed to be lost forever, as gone as that night when Sonny's dead man's eyes went dead for good. I did not know that it would also reveal the forces of another, unexplored darkness, an underworld unto itself. And I did not know, above all, that it would reveal a soul that, even amid the darkness in which it dwelt, eluded all concepts of good and evil, of right and wrong, of light and dark themselves.
Meet the Author
A journalist who has also written three novels, Nick Tosches is an acclaimed biographer whose unconventional books -- Dino and The Devil and Sonny Liston among them -- illuminate some of America's more controversial, overshadowed talents.
- New York, New York
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Nick Tosches can be an acquired taste - and many people never acquire the taste. He overwrites, wanders well off subject, has highly subjective readings of his subjects (and that is being kind to him) and seems to love to wallow in his own seaminess and misery. Somehow, though, he keeps it in check here and his portrait of Liston, heavyweight chump and loser extraordinaire, works perfectly. His ripping apart of the autopsy results seems almost incontrovertible. All in all, a terrific work.
I really enjoyed the Devil and Sonny Liston. I learned quite a few things about the troubled man. I had no idea about his struggle with internal demons and sordid past. It was enjoyable to read.