September 06, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

In the Hand of Dante (Book - Nick Tosches)

Current Status
In Season
Nick Tosches
Little, Brown and Company
We gave it an A

The soon-to-be-infamous ”rant” in Nick Tosches’ In the Hand of Dante — a piece of provocation finely calibrated by a masterly hype artist — is really no more offensive than Sade’s ”Justine” or N.W.A’s ”Greatest Hits” and, in general, better reasoned than both. The attacks Tosches therein makes on his editor, his publishing house, the publishing industry at large, William Shakespeare, God, and The New York Times are all grounded in solid logic. On the other hand, it is hardly apposite, in denouncing Oprah’s Book Club, to call its creator a ”fat-ass bitch”; it is jive, which is its point.

Correction: That should be quote-unquote Tosches, for the novelist inserts himself as the hero of the novel, just as his fellow Newark-born prose genius Philip Roth made ”Philip Roth” the protagonist of ”Operation Shylock.” And much as Dante Alighieri sent himself to hell, purgatory, heaven, and back in ”The Divine Comedy.” In ”In the Hand of Dante,” the disgruntled writer ”Nick Tosches” gets in bed with mobsters who’re looking to move the priceless manuscript of Dante’s masterpiece. This plot is braided with Tosches’ evocative imaginings of Dante’s doubts, loves, strivings, and sorrows, and all is marked by an over-the-top shock-the-bourgeois lewdness, and the result is a blindingly brilliant and joltingly weird work of art.

Tosches is a Dante obsessive, a rock journalist of enviable talents, the biographer of Jerry Lee Lewis and Dean Martin, and the author of a Mob novel called ”Cut Numbers.” He writes a streetwise edition of the high style, the prose noble with classical cadences and silky incantations but also rumbling like a blues groove. He makes English sway. Thus, as ”Tosches” shares some good white wine with his girl: ”To look into her eyes and see her smile is to feel all the love that has ever flowed from me be returned to me in luscious waves.” Which leads to the perfect: ”Up in the room, we make love like leopards.”

”Tosches” is a hipster superhero — more impudent than Jerry Lee and, like Dino, a paragon of menefreghismo: He does not ”give a f—” (though he gives you the word itself as often as 10 times a page). As a 6-year-old, for instance, ”Tosches” killed a neighborhood boy who dared to taunt him: ”I jumped on him, straddling his scrawny belly, and I opened his scrawny throat with the blade of the butcher’s knife, which took from him his voice, and then his life.” All of the metafictional horseplay is executed with steadfast suavity.

After a desiccated priest discovers the original of the ”Commedia,” ”Tosches” meets Louie, a character from ”Cut Numbers.” Combine the worst elements of the vilest villains in the history of literature. Put them in the body of a whoremongering 63-year-old hitman. Imagine him wearing ladies’ underwear. That’s Louie. Built to provoke much disgust, he is nonetheless a plausible character, a credible blob of id. Louie does his thing; ”Tosches” does his; the contemporary track of the book takes off as a swank and clean-lined thriller.

Meanwhile, back in 14th-century Italy, Dante Alighieri is creating one of the supreme works of the millennium. There are lucid discussions of rhetoric, prosody, linguistics, philosophy, and such. There is Dante’s willing of dream visions, his tripling of trinities, and Tosches’ scholarly twists on the fourfold allegory. There are some portions of ”In the Hand of Dante” that make ”The Waste Land” look like ”The Cat in the Hat,” which does not exactly do wonders for narrative momentum. Their ideal reader would be fluent in half a dozen dead languages and have a close familiarity with medieval theology.

You can skip those parts, but please come back to the delicate and ridiculously sublime bits in which the novelist gets inside the poet’s heart. It may be no more than a combination of metric deftness and artful stealing from the master, but a few passages here — about the wonder of prayer, and the astronomy of the soul, and the illimitable sadness of lost love — stand up not too shabbily against the radiance of the ”Commedia” itself. For all of Tosches’ tomfoolery and ”Tosches”’ playing of Old Nick, the most audacious thing about ”In the Hand of Dante” is the author’s furious delivery of rare aesthetic bliss.

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