When the prose in Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams hits your eye like a big pizza pie — that’s Nick Tosches! His sentences — flippantly incantatory, gorgeously slapdash, nihilistically overripe, and infinitely vulgar — mesh perfectly with the bizarre spirit of Dino Crocetti, a.k.a. Dean Martin, immortal crooner. To Tosches, tears are ”womanly waters of disgrace,” Jerry Lewis is ”a convoluted, colicky knot of clinical frays,” and Dino himself ”had a gift for tapping into that Ur-slime, a gift for slipping the songs of others, like so many silver dollars, into the oversized shoes of his own nascent style.”
This sounds like a wildly misfired metaphor, until you learn that one of Martin’s first jobs was dealing cards in Cosmo Quattrone’s back room in Steubenville, Ohio, where he scammed extra cash by pitching losers’ silver dollars into his oversize loafers. Cosmo nabbed him when Dino foolishly rode the loop-the-loop at the Feast of St. Anthony and silver rain pelted the delighted crowd below. Tosches takes us for a delicious wallow in the singer’s scummy career, with frequent brief excursions into Martin’s ankle-deep consciousness.
Of course, in the case of Martin, too much psychic speculation would strain credulity. Wife after wife, pal after pal confess that they have no idea what went on behind that blank rhinoplastied mug that earned him the nickname ”King Leer.” Tosches’ guess is as good as any, and he sump-pumps up a lot of data to back it up. His bottom line: Martin had ”a pin-tumbler sidebar lock on his guts that no one could crack.” Too passively narcissistic to chase women, he let them flutter up to him: Lana Turner, June Allyson, too many to count (or care). ”He was a good sex man,” recalls the owner of Ciro’s nightclub, ”but his big interest was golf.”
Martin was, apparently, what he seemed: a black hole of ennui. In later years, he turned his mostly hoked-up alcoholic shtick into a reality: When he was stopped for describing a sine wave down the highway in his souped-up car, it didn’t help that his vanity plate read drunky. But from the outset, Tosches convincingly argues, Martin was a bottomless emptiness offset by Lewis’ appalling excess. Alas, he once interceded to save his partner’s life when Lewis made fun of Murder, Inc.’s Lord High Executioner Albert Anastasia by braying, ”That’s what happens when cousins get married.”
Beyond this act of philanthropy, what did Dean Martin contribute to the arts in America? What could possibly justify Tosches’ noisy lucubrations, his hundred pages of notes and sources and discographies, not to mention the coolest cover design of any book this year? When asked to discuss his own happiness, Martin summed it up in a single paragraph extolling golf, TV, food, booze, and sleep, concluding, ”Another massive bowel movement. Beautiful. This is my life.”
The mysterious fact is that Martin is important. Quite without human substance, he was a triumph of effortless, mindless, instinctual vocal style. Elvis Presley hailed him as his favorite singer, and Tosches credits him as ”the Missing Link” between Elvis and Bing Crosby. Tosches might have done more to explicate Dino’s gift and delved less into the slime of his life. But his surreal, dreamy narrative disturbingly conveys what it might be like to be thoroughly two-dimensional.