In the Hand of Dante by Nick Tosches

“It now seemed that it could be similarly said that there were only two kinds of books: Oprah books and those that wished they were.”
— Nick Tosches

“Some readers may find this book offensive; others will declare it transcendent. It’s certain to be one of the most talked-about novels of the decade.”
— Description on the book jacket

Suffice it to say that this probably isn’t an Oprah book (a good thing, according to Jonathan Franzen at least). Offensive? Slightly. Transcendent? On occasion. One of the “most talked-about novels of the decade”? Probably not, but it’s definitely a page-turner. Let’s establish right at the onset that author Nick Tosches’ astonishing talents are indisputable. In this ambitious novel, he creates a superb tale woven with mystery and theft, set against a backdrop of literary history.

A hand-written manuscript of Dante’s The Divine Comedy is discovered in a chamber of the Vatican. From there, the valuable document finds its way to the States where a writer (Nick Tosches as himself) is asked to study its authenticity. Each page of the manuscript is valued at million-plus dollars, and a gruesome cast of characters descend en masse to claim a stake. Meanwhile, alternating chapters flash back to Dante, the genius poet who is in the midst of producing his magnum opus.

Tosches cleverly weaves stories within stories, his tone deftly reflecting the seedy underbelly of New York, the writer’s angst, and Dante’s painstaking work. The chapters devoted to Dante are some of the most intriguing and beautifully written sections of the book. The author’s knowledge of his subject is clearly reflected as he recreates the poet’s world of long ago, and imagines Dante’s laborious quest. As the narrator explains:

. . . My obsession with Dante. . . . Back when we were drunkards together, he had sat silently nodding, feigning interest, as I at times maundered endlessly about what I then held to be the most beatific emanation of the human soul.

Tosches is essentially paying homage to the ghost of the great Dante, yet the story is at its best during the dark thriller-type sections wherein the fate of the discovered manuscript is put to question. Its authenticity, tested by experts, is determined, and from there, the writer sets on a harrowing journey to sell the manuscript page by page.

The book is being publicized as “shocking” and “disturbing,” probably due to Tosches’ gritty descriptions of New York hoods — “Louie” in particular, the seedy criminal who is part of the crew involved with the discovery of the manuscript — whose penchant for easy murder and raunchy sex are described in vivid detail. In the sections devoted to Louie, Tosches goes on a four-letter-word spree, confirming his character as a ruthless thug. As Tosches writes: “Everyone . . . feared him without really knowing why.”

Tosches’ inclusion of himself in the story is a clever literary trick that immediately draws us in. Tosches also shamelessly takes potshots at his own publisher and the publishing industry in general. In his introductory chapter on the narrator, he begins with:

I speak to you as an AOL Time Warner product. I never envisioned that I would live to say these words, which both repulse and strangely amuse me.

One has to wonder if Tosches’ publishers (Little, Brown which is owned by AOL Time Warner) thought that allowing such a swipe would fall under the book’s shock factor-ability, which it does. What’s most intriguing, however, is the author’s amazing talent in adapting chameleon-like tones and establishing the various moods: deftly switching back and forth between New York lowlifes and Dante Alighieri’s world circa 1300s.

The novel’s gruesomeness makes it difficult to sympathize with any one character, aside from the poet. Though we can’t help rooting for the greedy quest for the manuscript and the infinite dollars attached therein, it’s difficult to champion either the notoriously horrid Louie or Tosches (the character). It’s the discovery and survival of one of literature’s greatest achievements that warrants our interest.

In the Hand of Dante is an interesting read, all in all; certainly one of the more unusual books to be offered as of late, written by a prolific writer who has developed a strong cult following. (Tosches has written a number of books and biographies and is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair.) Tosches’ prose is enchanting; he is a master of his craft, and frankly, even if the storyline won’t appeal to you, Tosches’ brilliant talent at weaving words together will. A knowledge of and interest in Dante and The Divine Comedy, coupled with a loose understanding of Latin and Italian also helps.

In the end, this is perhaps one of the most strangely heart-felt tributes to Dante Alighieri in quite a while. Various reviews have surprisingly dismissed the sections on Dante as an aside, claiming that the heist is the more interesting factor of the novel. Agreed, but if it weren’t for the great poet and his soul-bearing narratives, the book would go nowhere. It’s also important to note that Tosches’ book coincides with the recent release of the film Heaven, part of the trilogy Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell, which unofficially refers to Dante’s themes.

Every so often, literature’s long-forgotten greats make a comeback and entrench themselves within popular culture. (In the past few years, Jane Austen and Shakespeare have resurfaced). This time, it’s Dante Alighieri. Welcome back.