A handful of key characters put the plot of Nick Tosches' In the Hand of Dante into motion. There is the fragile Vatican priest who triggers the story, the depraved gangster, and most importantly the New York writer by the name of Nick Tosches. Anyone familiar with Tosches the author will recognize Tosches the multi-faceted character immediately. He is made up of equal parts scholarly Nick, poetic Nick, New Jersey Nick and, of course, prick Nick.
Tosches is a great writer and a solid reporter, but he gets too much mileage out of treating his readers with contempt that is intended to pass for integrity. But his fans--like those pathetic black-and-blue spouses who line-up on daytime TV--put up with the occasional abuse. In his case it must be because, more often than not, Tosches delivers.
His newest novel follows the discovery of the original manuscript of Dante's The Divine Comedy in a Vatican basement. The find is priceless and everyone wants a piece of the action. But no one covets the relic more than Nick Tosches does. When readers meet him, he is a bitter, but successful writer who may or may not be dying and doesn't give a damn either way. (We know this because he tells us many times.) His lowlife friends hire him to verify the manuscript's authenticity and within a short time he is an accessory to murder.
A second story then unfolds. We go back 700 years to the tale of Dante himself and his struggle to write his epic poem. The two stories--two writers wrestling with a corrupt world--intertwine.
Tosches is a self-taught Dante scholar and life-long fan so he has plenty of room here to reflect at length on Dante's greatness. The novel includes many poetic interludes and much meditation on the nature of art, commerce and beauty. There is contemplation of the wind, candlelight and trees. But--always true to his roots--Tosches also deals up plenty of punchy New York encounters in barrooms and streets. The corruption and sin that lie at the heart of Dante's masterwork and most of Tosches' writing is never far away.
Of course a cynic--someone like, say, Nick Tosches--might point out that no artist has ever gone broke trying to shock the New York intelligentsia. So there is plenty of that too--scenes of quick, brutal violence and glimpses of bizarre sexual encounters.
But the most fun in the book comes from Tosches' nasty ruminations on writing in the modern, profit-driven corporate world of book publishing.
Tosches--the author or the character, it doesn't matter which--is sick of working for an industry where "ineffective calculations of demographics, marketing potentiality and projected profits [decide] the fate of books." He wants nothing to do with the "subliterate Uriah Heaps in their blue-chalk-stripe shirts with white cuffs and white Eton collars, these golem whose tastelessness in dress perfectly reflected their tastelessness in books."
He slams Oprah's Book Club, Stephen King and--in a vicious (but probably safe) display of gnawing the hand that feeds him--Time-Warner (the owners of Little Brown books). He includes a funny letter he fired off to his publisher following the suggestion that a previous books be subtitled, so his potential readers would not be confused by his chosen title for the book.
"The title does not present confusion," he writes. "Rather it presents mystery, which attracts us all, even those too dumb to notice the big signs NEW NONFICTION and NEW FICTION that sadly demarcate every major bookstore in this sadly demarcated age."
So it is not only publishers who are morons, but readers too. Fair enough. We cattle get the books we deserve. And with each passing book, Tosches' ego manages to elbow its way further and further into the foreground. In the Hand of Dante may not be the masterpiece that many--including Tosches--have been calling it. But in a world where--in Tosches' words--only two kinds of books get anyone's attention: "Oprah books and those that wished they were," it is still nice to see someone giving the finger to the rest of us.