I know I sound like an alarmist.
The dialectical mutations of each phase of the attacks and their aftermath came so rapidly that every successive generation lasted half as long as its predecessor. Mourning by the end of the day, dirty jokes by the end of the week. Newspaper headlines contracted from banner size before the end of the month. There was a war, organized quickly, prosecuted swiftly, and now the Turks are spearheading the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. Discussions about blowback, or POW status, or Arabic-speakers in the CIA, or insurance protections, or ground troops, or what Phase II meant, or civil liberties, or anthrax happened so fast that it was as if we were trying to outrace the limits of our deracinated memories.
And so at the end of memory comes literature, prepared to reconstitute our perspective of the cataclysm. In the works now is the first round of novels designed to function as coping mechanism, excavator of significance and historical document. Be prepared for the sneering amoralists, proud of themselves for seeing through the veneer of hero worship. Call them the counter-jingoists, and get ready for their cheap defrocking of the fire department and the police. ("Hector turned off the tv, angry. The apartment was burning hot and sweat beaded on his mustache. 'You know, fuck those guys. I'm sick of this shit,' he said. 'They get paid to do all that hero shit. I don't get paid to do nothing.' Ruby kept looking around the room, but chortled half a giggle through her cigarette. Fingering the tiny Ziploc bags now safely in her purse, she could still smell the acrid stench of lower Manhattan.") Also be prepared for what comes out of the laptops of downtown Brooklyn, from the dilettantes who watched the towers burn from their rooftops and saw nothing but material. ("The drizzle of hellfire-it came after the blanket of ash. The paper, all the paper, all over. Invoices. Interoffice memos. Printouts of forwarded e-mails containing AA-style affirmations or office-appropriate jokes, a thumbtack-size hole in each of the three corners that remained. Singed and crumpled confessions typed to politely disinterested co-workers whom Charon had snatched and tossed across the river.")
Nick Tosches is on record as working on In the Hand of Dante (Little, Brown, 352 pages, $24.95) long before Sept. 11. In 2000, Da Capo published The Nick Tosches Reader as a sampler of his three decades of depravity and gorgeous linguistic contortions, the last pages of which announce his conjuring into being "a novel that takes place both in the present and at the early years of the fourteenth century." So what could be more appropriate for a book that traffics in divergent (and recombinant, as we'll see) epochs than to witness, during the course of its creation, the present moment subdivided with the fall of the World Trade Center into befores and afters?
With In the Hand of Dante, Tosches-the nasty, chaotic, perverse poet, chronicler and biographer capable of powerfully sublime manipulations of language-gives us both pre-9/11 and post-9/11 fiction at the same time. Lesser writers would spew torrents of verbiage to express the meaning of what started with 3000 dead in New York. Tosches warns against it, expressing doubt all throughout the book, whether speaking in the voice of Nick Tosches the character-narrator or in Dante Alighieri's ancient timbre, that words can approach the miraculous, divine "illimitableness" that animates transcendent literature like The Divine Comedy. "[A]s the Commedia became to me less glorious a poem, it became to me all the more glorious a monument to the impossibility and futility of man's most noble creative aspirations," Tosches muses when his character is asked by the tough men of a dying underworld what he thinks of Dante's masterpiece. Early on in the book, when Tosches is delirious from gangrene, he weaves his dirty story with a high-handed literary elegance ("I was six years old when I first took the life of another") before snapping out of his delusion: "Did I really just write those words? Jesus, how they reek of the cheap rhetoric of cheap solemnity." And, winking at the beatitude he used to denounce beauty: "This writing racket makes a hard habit to kick."
Over the next few months, when booksellers pile Sept. 11 fiction to their ceilings, tremble before Tosches' warning. In the Hand of Dante reveals its glory through subverbal expressions-breathing, sighing, silence. Dante is told, "All begins with the sigh, the ah from which all words and tongues and attempts to express the inexpressible derive." The moment of parted lips and quickened breath is the sufficient cry to God. When Tosches, two-thirds of the way into his book, finally brings the towers down, he wisely says very little and demonstrates much.
But this is a Nick Tosches novel, the one that he's been calling his masterpiece, and so the book is wonderfully logorrheic. Tosches loves to use his considerable powers for evil, imagining throughout his career a burger joint called Schicklgruber's ("Perched atop the G was a magnificent imperial eagle, also wrought in plastic, clutching a hamburger in its talons"), or a Manhattan laid to panting waste by a remorseless erection known as Frankie, or the unearthed blue correspondence of the 20th-century American canon ("I grasped your flanks and sank my laureate head into your loins. There was a string there? I thought, that Jew lawyer from Memphis never truly took her price tag off"). In the Reader, Tosches grinned and gave a sneak preview of the intended first line of In the Hand of Dante: "Louie pulled off his bra and threw it down upon the coffin." In this revised version, Louie, the book's mobster-holdover assassin, tosses the demi-cupped girdle of his fleshy chest onto a "casket." For a writer as singularly possessed by finding the perfect locution-the prideful mistake Tosches would have us abandon-the revision must have been laborious. (No writer, for example, can more skillfully deploy the term "half-a-fag.")
Tosches places himself and his craft in Dante's hands as he experiences the purification of his spirit through his capture, by maculate methods, of the original manuscript of The Divine Comedy. The points of connection between the 14th century and the 21st are numerous and profound, and through Tosches' use of Dante as his prism to view literature and truth and divinity and faith even the most apparently frivolous and self-indulgent passages end up steering him on his arduous course. In particular, he clues us in on his contempt for his publisher, who wanted to add a subtitle to his Where Dead Voices Gather to indicate clearly that the book was nonfictional. Tosches sent Little, Brown a vitriolic letter, reprinted in the novel, declaiming its anti-literary sensibility, which has as its fuel the intermingling of fact and fiction. His rejection of his publisher-which enjoys a nice complementary scene between Dante and his patron, Guido Novello da Polenta-readies his soul for the journey, as "the thrilling promise of all things possible and limitless was gone." In majestic and inspired fashion, both authors endure to realign themselves with the miracle of illimitableness, which they find demands the absence of words.
Yet the joy of reading Tosches comes from watching him use his peerless mastery of the language in service of both crossdressing hitmen and the convulsions of the souls of poets. On one page, Louie's demanding a terrified 19-year-old prostitute "tell me 'bout my pretty pussy," and on the next page, Tosches unleashes "the holy man Isadore the Jew of Languedoc who first set down in the ancient characters of his kind these secret teachings that?[Dante] believed, one might breach the innermost veils of Scripture, to which Augustine had alluded." Tosches makes the reader his-shall we say-girlfriend, the one who wants to see nothing but the beauty of his spirit and consider all the barstool filth vestigial. And that's when he makes his girlfriend blow him while she wants to watch the moon landing ("It wasn't so much her mouth into which I released myself at that moment. It was the mouth of all mankind") or when he calls his daughter, who figures heavily in the book, "the prettiest thing I'd ever seen and not wanted to fuck."
Tosches doesn't treat his girlfriends all that well, so we occasionally get self-parodic lines like "the gun felt like a handful of good, warm pussy," but we stay with him in no small part for his contrapositions in the 14th century-in particular, Dante's despair over the artificial and revealing literary affects that keep his vision from commingling with the divine, and what he has to purge from his soul in order to fulfill the promise of the Commedia. By all rights, In the Hand of Dante should be a disjointed mess-and the focus on at least two of the characters is very messy-but Tosches' exceptional ear and discerning mastery of English make the styles cohere into the stil nuovo he has worked his life to synthesize.
It wouldn't be fair to give away how In the Hand of Dante reveals itself to be a Sept. 11 novel. A large component of the novel's success is the mysterious way in which the intrusion of uncontrollable forces impacts the soul's purgation, and so detailing Tosches' rendition of Sept. 11 would take away the mystique. A nightmare involved itself in a story he was already mapping out, so he had no choice but to make it part of the story; everyone who survived had no other option, either. At the same time, Tosches' narrative of recombinant epochs eerily prefigures the disaster. As soon as it occurs, it's clear how it informed every prior moment of a book written largely before the attacks, so much so that if the dots had been connected and 3000 people spared, he might have had to invent, Clancy-like, the hijacked jets. Instead, Tosches' improbable, blissful unity of the book's tripartite soul lies with his wise appreciation for the eloquence of silence-a prophetic understanding for the cacophony soon to follow.