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Doldrums

Nick Tosches passes wind; Rick Bass deserves better.

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Doldrums

Nick Tosches passes wind; Rick Bass deserves better.

In the Hand of Dante

By Nick Tosches

Little, Brown, 376 pp., $24.95

Think of Nick Tosches' train wreck of a new novel, In the Hand of Dante, as a triangle of unlikely, unholy forces, and you've got yourself one ugly mess -- in triplicate, ad nauseum, you name it. Let's see:

In one corner, there's Louie, a 63-year-old, trigger-happy, woman-hating New York mobster dressed in bra and panties beneath the jacket he got for two grand from some "wop" in Milan. (Slacks: provenance and asking price a mystery.) For kicks, he has sex with a corpse. (Or maybe it's only in the company of a corpse. Who knows? It's never clear.) And for brains, he's got the mind of a cold-blooded subhuman, a mind that comes with tough-guy gutter talk that is pure pulp fiction. Sample exchange, out of the gutter this once but no less idiotic: "'I just ordered a pizza,' [Louie] told him. 'You just ordered a pizza.' 'Yeah. I just ordered a pizza.'" Sample word-wizardry to precede and illuminate this mind-numbing nondialogue: "Louie was not in the fucking mood for this fucking shit tonight. He had just ordered a fucking pizza and was settling in to watch the fucking ball game, and now this. He simply was not in the fucking mood for this shit tonight." (Brilliant of Tosches to delve into not only Louie's thoughts but the instant response of his very audience.) Anyway, that's one corner. In the far corner, there's ...

Dante Alighieri. So we're suddenly back in 14th-century Italy, and Dante's chatting up some old Jewish mystic who instructs the poet in the threefold symbolism of something or other. It's hard to keep track because it's hard to keep up because it's cabbalah we're talking about here, and you're either ready for a lengthy tutorial on the archaeology of Western alphabets and cryptic symbols or you're more than likely simply waiting and wanting to get on with this overblown, exasperating story, which has in its third corner ...

Nick Tosches (!), the author himself as writer, alcoholic, drug addict, killer, and insufferable windbag, who winds up mixed up with Louie in a scheme to make hundreds of millions off of a heretofore unknown copy, in Dante's own hand, of The Divine Comedy, a manuscript that required past sneakiness on the part of a Vatican priest based on more past sneakiness set in Sicily, home of the Mob and la mano cornuta, blood feuds and bloodbaths, whatever and anyway ...

"Tosches" ends up happy in love and rich as the devil, and Dante learns, at the feet of some Arab seer on some island in the Mediterranean, about his impending death after learning some language lessons equating the soul, the wind, and one's very breath and learning what is and isn't good poetry, which prompts in Tosches the author/character some incoherent grandstanding on what is and isn't good prose. To wit: Hemingway is a "fat faggot," but Faulkner's the man because he was "corned-up" half the time and didn't understand a word he was writing, plus he had crummy opening sales to prove he was way ahead of everybody. Hubert Selby Jr., Philip Roth, and Peter Matthiessen get high marks, but today's editors are dimwits because they've never heard of, much less read, Eliot's The Sacred Wood. AOL Time Warner is, to put it simply, satanic.

Sum total: this latest from Nick Tosches, author, in the words of Nick Tosches, character, in In the Hand of Dante, page 74: "I did not care. I truly did not care."

-- Leonard Gill

The Hermit's Story: Stories

By Rick Bass

Houghton Mifflin, 179 pp., $22

Montana's Rick Bass is a writer capable of tremendous accomplishments and who appears to be living the good life. Deep in the wilderness with wife and two daughters, Bass works in what he calls his "writing shed," ticking off novels, novellas, and essay and story collections with metronomic regularity. His work reveals a man intent on laboring at his craft come wild inspiration or the doldrums of the imagination: Sometimes, it flies off the page, soaring on the wings of poesy, near-perfect; other times, it lumbers lethargically off the page only to fall flat on its face. Such is the nature of most steadily working fiction writers' output, though. Uneven is the rule -- or curse, rather -- whether over the span of a career or the pages of a collection of short fiction.

The Hermit's Story, Bass' latest book of stories, is a law-abiding volume: It both flies high and founders. And it exhausts the vein of dying/dead relationships. Of the 10 tales here, "Real Town" is truly majestic and powerful, an overlooked little masterpiece; "The Fireman" and "Two Deer" are good and strong; "The Hermit's Story" milks a magical yet natural setting for all it's worth but comes out pretty well nonetheless, though in need of a narrator change; "Eating" and "The Cave" stretch believability but survive by dint of their lightness; "Swans" attempts to break your heart but can't; "The Distance" is more of an interesting lesson on Thomas Jefferson seemingly gleaned from a Monticello guide; "The Prisoners," sadly, is no more than an exercise, an awkward moment put to paper; and "Presidents' Day" just doesn't work.

Lazy, inept editing mars much of this book. Overwriting, easily boiled down to essence, slows some stories to a crawl, while others that first appeared in different form in journals such as Epoch, The Paris Review, and Story have been trimmed of good meat while, curiously, the fat still hangs off of them. This is the fault of the editors at Houghton Mifflin, not of Bass. In ostensibly attempting to clean up stories, the editors have created mistakes, missed misspellings, let oxymorons slide, and, in one instance, cut the word "sand," necessary to understand a sentence, evidently because someone mistook it for a repeated "and." Tsk, tsk -- and in the best story of the bunch.

Rick Bass deserves better. Annoyances aside, don't let these things dissuade you from reading this important, lovable writer. -- Jeremy Spencer

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