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Nick Tosches is your classic anti-intellectual intellectual: Like his rockcrit comrades Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer, he’s a learned man who professes to value spirit and semen over “that glob of gross crenulated meat that we call mind.” As a music writer, Tosches celebrated Dionysian figures like Jerry Lee Lewis and Jim Morrison while scorning the limp-dicked, peace-and-love pieties of the counterculture: He once described the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You” as “a cold hard blue-veined cock right up under the tie-dyed skirts of benighted sensitivity.” Tosches eventually broke free from the geeky ghetto of rock criticdom for a career as an acclaimed biographer and novelist. But whether writing about the boxer Sonny Liston, mafia politician Michele Sindona, or opium dens, his obsessions remain the same: heroic brutality, connoisseurship of illicit thrills. Then there’s his increasingly curmudgeonly insistence that things were better before you were born: This is a man who believes rock ‘n’ roll shot its wad before Elvis appeared on Ed Sullivan and literature crapped out decades ago.
Tosches is a Norman Mailer for the post-Elvis era. Like Norm, he’s hot for criminals and pugilists, and his entire worldview is constructed around one binary: erect-and-inflamed versus detumescent-and-tepid. In the Hand of Dante, his third novel, is partly an attack on “i vigliacchi” (“the lukewarm ones”)—people, such as editors, who spend their lives trying to rein in all things wild and vital. This past spring a tirade against the publishing industry excerpted from the book stirred up advance buzz: Tosches contemplates becoming a whore, dedicating himself to “manufacturing a pure-bullshit bestseller.” In the Hand of Dante is more a case of impure bullshit, too limned with a lifetime’s preoccupations to work as a cynical cash cow.
The novel boasts no less than three major plotlines: Dante’s life story, the tale of a Vatican librarian who stumbles upon a catacomb hiding banished manuscripts (such as an original copy of The Divine Comedy), and a thriller narrative in which Nick Tosches himself is drawn into the mob’s dangerous scheme to sell the priceless Dante manuscript. It’s The Name of the Rose meets The Sopranos, scripted by Kathy Acker and starring Dennis Hopper, reprising his role as Blue Velvet psychopath Frank (“I fuck fucking fuck fuck!”). A writhing mass of purplescent prose, In the Hand of Dante is Tosches’s most overripe book yet. It is literally swollen with ambition, mounting a confused and confusing attempt to answer the big questions of human existence—love, faith, the nature of truth, and evil. True to his nothing-new-under-the-sun stance, Tosches concludes that it was all said best millennia ago in the Gospel of Thomas—”If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
The book opens with Nick, the narrator, in the midst of middle-aged crisis: His leg is rotting with gangrene, his dick’s been disabled by diabetes, and he’s squandered his chances for love. “What the fuck had he ever conceived? It had all ended up on his right hand or in some cunt’s yap.” Just as the narrative novel shuttles back and forth between Little Italy in the 20th century and Big Italy in the 14th century, Tosches’s style oscillates between tough-guy straight talk and ornate Latinate language. This, in turn, dramatizes his own struggle: Tosches the goodfella wannabe versus Tosches the reader of Homer. After one particularly flowery romantic passage, he rebukes himself: “Fuck that shit. The bitch gave decent head, and that’s that.” This self-reflexive gesture—stopping the narrative to cut his own crap—becomes a recurrent tic, but it doesn’t ultimately serve any purpose. Nor does it keep in check the effete eruptions that seem to embarrass him: On the very next page he prances back with lines like “The suff of the lagoon was an endless liquescent sigh.”
Tosches’s voice rings more true in the contemporary mafia plot than the Dante chapters, clotted as they are with erudite disquisitions on hermeticism and courtly love. He takes you inside the pathology of the gangster. Nick and his mob buddy Lefty make a fabulous Beckettian double act. They share an intense hatred of women who hold newspapers under their dogs when they poop in the street (both emasculating for the dog and unsexy in a dame). “A broad might be a dogshit cunt, but you don’t know unless you actually see her in the street with that bag of shit in her hand. Like maybe that goodlookin’ bitch, that stewardess, on the Gulfstream. She could be strokin’ your cock and you wouldn’t even know: It could be her dogshit hand.”
Beneath that trash-talking hard shell pulses the Hallmark heart of an old softie, though. Throughout the book both Nick and Dante look back at their lives, and while the latter is realizing that he’s been a pompous, superficial fool who looked for love and enlightenment in all the wrong places, Nick—”blowjob connoisseur” and supreme womanizer—discovers true love with an Italian goddess named Giuletta. Soon he’s sounding suspiciously tie-dyed and sensitive, basking in “a new awareness of the magnitude and multitude of gifts that life can offer if only we forsake our ideas of life and open our hearts just enough to let in the breeze of the holy mystery that life truly is.” Strip away the windy prose and overwrought gestures at profundity, and In the Hand of Dante could be a sharp, svelte thriller. But modest ambition is not Tosches’s style. A Big Bang kind of guy, he’d clearly much rather produce a magnificent mess than a small but perfectly formed success.