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In the Hand of Dante    by Nick Tosches order for
In the Hand of Dante
by Nick Tosches
Order:  USA  Can
Back Bay, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Nick Tosches' In the Hand of Dante moves seamlessly between sublimity and profanity. He quotes Plato's explanation of man's two souls (the immortal one resident in the head and a mortal soul 'tethered like a beast untamed in the belly') and seems determined to unleash the beast for his readers to see clearly. The introduction plunges us immediately into the perspective of foul-tongued, sixty-three-year-old enforcer/hit man Louie as he reminisces about his past sexual performance (Louie's comparison of the sexual act to a plunger unclogging a toilet bowl captures the character brilliantly).

The story segues in to Nick Tosches (playing his own protagonist) in Havana, promising to deliver 'a letter-bomb that will blow away the face and hands of what we call culture and what we call history.' But his letter-bomb of a tale moves slowly forward with frequent and wholly fascinating digressions, and commentary that cuts deep, such as a passionate diatribe on children today 'malnourished by the pablum of "political correctness"', and an even more heartfelt history of the devolution of publishing into the production of 'Oprah books and those that wished they were.'

From Havana, the author moves to Bora Bora and its 'lush verdant peaks of forested plains like altars to which no man has ever ascended.' Note that the author does not let either himself or the reader get carried away by such lyrical descriptions, but profanes us back to his succinct summations of reality. Even when I didn't like his language, I had to laugh at these transitons. He looks back on a childhood of 'few books, many bookies' and the discovery of 'a sort of parallel neighborhood, in which Homer and Dante and Samuel Beckett were as big a deal as my grandfather's brother'.

When a priest of Alcamo with a lust for books, steals a very old manuscript from the lowest of seven levels of the Papal library, this original of Dante's Commedia is taken from him by Louie, partnered by Tosches, who is needed for authentication. Louie's readiness to slaughter witnesses leads Tosches to the decision to take control of events, and in this he is aided by the chaos of 9/11. His comments on that include the telling one 'that Mammon was the only god of those who sent young men to their death.'

While the modern day plot moves forward, we see Dante himself on a rambling philosophical journey of discovery at the feet of an old Jew, who tells him that 'faith is but a birthmark with which we are born, an impalpable umbilicus to time and place which we rarely ponder to cut.' For me, this was a novel, in which the journey and the ideas encountered along the way, were more important than the destination. Its complexity and brutal honesty are not for everyone, but those who are able to appreciate it will want to read In the Hand of Dante again, and again.

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