Review: In the Hand of Dante by Nick Tosches

Ian Penman wonders which is the real Nick Tosches as he follows him along the high tightrope of his latest, In the Hand of Dante

In the Hand of Dante
by Nick Tosches
376pp, No Exit Press, £16.99

"Must not anyone who wants to move the crowd be an actor who impersonates himself?" So said Nietzsche, who knew about masks. "For I now know that, one way or another, I, Nick Tosches will not be here..." So says Nick Tosches - or "Nick Tosches" - whose In the Hand of Dante, a high tightrope spin of a novel, is a threefold meditation on the written "I", the writer's life, and writing's holy lie. Who is writing here is the question Tosches' reader is constantly moved to ask; it's also the inquiry that rings through this sombre, manic, metaphysical fiction.

In the Hand of Dante can be classified as a work of mystery or crime, but the paths to and from its core mystery are far from predictable. Murder, fraud, betrayal: sure. But the real crime, so Tosches leads us to think, is thought itself. The world betrayed by the word: thought as desiccation, retreat, lie. Tosches concurs with Cioran: "Reason: the rust of our vitality".

The book kicks off with three opening chapters, one of which is the best opening I've read in a long time. This chapter, a description of a New York mafioso's clammy, murderous afternoon, is note-perfect, chilling in its accuracy. Tosches' previous crime novels spun around the crude magnetism of such guys; the twist this time is that the non-wise guys - in perplexed receipt of what is apparently an original Dante manuscript - call on one "Nick Tosches" (Nicky the book writer!) in hope of verification.

Or something like it, verification being an unreliably fluid prospect throughout this tale. Identity, logos, posterity: all are subject to the hazardous breeze of time and mortality. Fans of Tosches' work will recognise this, as they will recognise prompts from the Tosches pantheon - Charles Olson, William Faulkner, Homer, Blake and, yes, Dante.

Who is writing here? "Nick Tosches" (a good name for a wiseguy in a crime novel) is an alternately grouchy/beatific scribe, entering and exiting a far from conventional midlife crisis. He rants against his publishers ("I speak to you as an AOL/Time Warner product..."), confesses his addictions, fights diabetes. He is not dissimilar from the Nick Tosches I know: 53, mentor of bad behaviour and good prose, biographer of Dean Martin, Sonny Liston, Jerry Lee Lewis, stylishly dissonant crime novelist, editor at large for Vanity Fair, [ex] boozehound, [ex-ish] drug fiend, skirt-chaser, autodidact, who, at a certain point in the 90s, cleans up his act, knuckles down, attends to his health and begins to take his craft more seriously while maintaining the façade of dandy flaneur. One "Nick Tosches" lives (as Tosches wrote of Louis Prima) in "a world in which everything came down to broads, booze, and money, with plenty of linguini on the side" - while another Nick Tosches, cusping the big five-0, sets himself to learning Latin, the better to deepen his understanding of Dante and his world.

In past works, crude Nick and sublime Nick have coexisted productively, if not always peacefully. Here, Tosches lets all his Nicks out to play - and they're rolling big numbers. Towards the book's close, he has one hand on Dante's tiller and one eye on eternity's horizon. The passages of convoluted numerology would play better in a book wholly about alchemy, cabbalah and Renaissance dreams, as I suspect that most readers will end up reading In the Hand of Dante as two (or three) different plots. The Dante sections are overburdened with show-offy italicised Italian and untranslated rhymes. This I recognise as the autodidact's revenge, but it makes for unnavigable, arid stretches.

I think a younger Nick Tosches would have called "Nick Tosches" out on this; likewise his rants about modern publishing and other trendy devilments. Paradoxically, Tosches is more convincingly himself as Dante, glumly reflecting on his pash on Beatrice, ruing his emotional coldness, scattering old pages into the wind.

These are, in Tosches' own words, his "fat fuck" days, and he should enjoy them. But he can't, quite. And therein, happily, lies an insoluble tension - Tosches' illimitable perplexity, plain orneriness and lustrously oneiric muse - which, with any luck (diabetes, the IRS and critics notwithstanding), may give us many more books yet; real books, by a real writer, the real Nick Tosches.

· Ian Penman is the author of Vital Signs (Serpent's Tail)

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Ian Penman

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