Friday, May 27, 2011

A Hard-Boiled Detective in Hell. Literally. -- Reviewing Dante's Journey

You have to understand that in 1961, Boston PD was very much a family affair. If you were Italian or Irish, you were pretty much guaranteed a slot. I was half of each, so I was practically assigned the badge at birth.

The irony--I loved being a beat cop. Beatrice was the ambitious one. She wanted me to advance faster in the department than I had in mind. It took an SOB like Argenti to bring me closer to my wife's wishes and our higher income. So, in some twisted way, we could curse Argenti for our family's pain and thank him for our extra comforts.

If it's all the same to everyone involved, I think I'll just hate him.

The name's Joe Dante, Boston PD. This is my journey.
Detective Joe Dante is chasing Filippo Argenti, drug kingpin and murderer of Dante's family,  when he's gunned down. Waking in a dark wood, Joe wants only to find Agenti and dispense justice but soon meets Virgil who tells him that the gunshot killed him and he wound up in Hell. Thus we find ourselves following hard-boiled detective Joe Dante on an imaginative journey modeled after Dante's Inferno.

Disbelieving and obsessed with revenge, Joe makes Virgil promise to lead him to Argenti first. As they travel through the circles of Hell, Joe gradually comes to believe. It is a measure of his obsession that he will not accept Hell's punishment of Argenti, but still wants to administer his own. In fact, it is a measure of Joe's desire to control events. Layered between the Cantos (chapters) mirroring Dante's Inferno, are flashbacks that tell us Joe's story. We realize how Joe was betrayed and why he is so driven. As Joe travels deeper into Hell, witnessing greater and greater levels of sin and punishment, he gradually realizes what he himself is guilty of and that his relationship with God was not as deep as he thought. It is this knowledge, of course, that can set Joe free. What we can't tell, however, is if Joe will let obsession drive him or finally face the truth.

As with many hard-boiled detective novels, Joe is always ready with a quip. Once he realizes that there is no death in Hell, he takes outrageous risks to get what he wants. Joe meets nefarious villains and people from the far future, which also provides opportunities for humor. The by-the-book detective's first encounter with hippies, glam rock stars, and rappers made me laugh. I also enjoyed it when Joe investigated places that the original book didn't examine, such as the virtuous pagans' Limbo. I also appreciated the author's sense of humor when I looked at the name Filippo Argenti and realized that a translation into English might be ... Phil Silvers. Ok, maybe that's pushing it too far. But there is a distinctive witty sense driving the book which made me get more involved in the reading. And that's a good thing.  Taking inventive liberties with Dante's blueprint, author J. C. Marino ratchets up the action to include space ships, hand-to-hand demonic fighting, and ray guns. By the end of the book, the reader is breathless, feeling as if we've been watching an action movie.

Marino also changes other basic elements of the classic in service of his story, such as making Virgil a more active character, allowing demons and damned to travel between the circles of Hell, and changing the underlying theology enough that repentance and salvation are possible in Hell.
 "Listen to me, all you who are willing to hear the truth," Virgil shouted.

Through the fog, Virgil presented an eerie sight as he preached to the growing crowd. With his leather jacket and slicked back hair, I couldn't tell if he looked more evil or good, anymore than I could discern the nature of his message.

"All you hoarders and wasters, miserly and prodigal... You reside here merely because you accept it. If you have faith and if that faith is strong, forgiveness is yours. Then, you will discover the way out."

I watched the crowd as Virgil delivered his message in a warped version of Jesus' sermon on the mount. People from the 1920's Chicago stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Muslims. Pirates clustered with pilgrims. Heavy metal rock stars leaned next to... Well, more heavy rock stars. Those who'd lived life too much gathered beside those who hadn't lived enough.

"Any one of you may walk out of here at any time, but you must accept the truth. You must know the truth about God, about yourself, and about your faith. For that, you must begin by answering one question -- who are you?" Virgil continued.

The crowd remained silent for a moment, and finally, someone laughed. Another joined in and soon, everyone was laughing.

The only ones who didn't were Virgil and me.

"There is no way out. This is Hell!" a waster yelled out. "Our fate is to be tortured for all eternity!"

"It is not torture that is your fate, but torment," Virgil said.

"What be the difference?" a Pilgrim hoarder hollered.

"In life, you each created your path, one that led directly to where you stand now," Virgil lectured.

"In life, our greatest sin was trying to have a good time," a waster called back. "Don't you want us to have fun?

"I want you to experience joy," Virgil answered, "and true joy begins with knowing who you are."

"Damn Sam, you are one crazy dude!" another waster yelled out.

"It's never too late to repent," Virgil said.
Dante's Journey is not perfect. There is one plot element to which I particularly object, but which I won't share here as it would be a spoiler. I also got very tired of Joe's repeatedly finding that Virgil's advice was right, but continually taking matters into his own hands anyway. A few times is fine but it was repeated enough that it made Joe seem like the dimmest bulb at the Boston PD every time he resolved to do things his way. That said, these moments did lead to some of my favorite action scenes so I am hard put to say how I would change that aspect of the book.

From a Catholic point of view, the theology was absolutely right in some ways and twisted like a corkscrew in others. I wonder what it is that makes modern authors want to water Hell down into simply an edgy version of Purgatory? I have no problem reading books that don't agree with my beliefs, but it is important that readers realize an important aspect of the theology in this book isn't what Dante communicates in the original. See the Theological Caveat below for more.

These issues aside, the book works spectacularly as entertainment.  I read it at breakneck speed and am hoping that a sequel will continue the journey into Purgatory. It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel as Marino juggles classical elements, hard-boiled noir, and science fiction/fantasy to give us a story that I will definitely be rereading. He is a talent worth watching and I'll be waiting impatiently for his next book.

Perhaps more importantly, Marino is true enough to Dante's original work that readers can feel the overall message shining through. I found myself pondering my behavior and old-fashioned sins. It was like an examination of conscience, albeit an entertaining one. I know that I am not alone in this reaction. Numerous reviews on Amazon and elsewhere mention that readers were moved to pause and ponder their lives during the story. Some became interested in reading the original. I also pulled my copy of Dante's Divine Comedy from the shelves to look through and reread sections. Therefore, I would say that as an introduction to Dante's Inferno, this book works wonderfully well.

Definitely recommended.

Theological Caveat
Some of the theology Dante includes is no longer taught by the Catholic Church, which we might expect since he wrote in the early 1300s. An example would be that virtuous pagans go to Limbo in Hell which is no longer taught. (Actually, as far as I can discover, the Church never officially had teachings about Limbo, but the belief was so widespread that it might as well have been from the point of view of believers.) However, the teachings on Heaven, Hell, salvation, and redemption, are still what the Catholic Church teaches. This excerpt from John Ciardi's essay on Dante at the beginning of his translation of Dante's Divine Comedy shows the salvation theology underlying Dante's Inferno. It also gives us exactly the point denied by both Dante's Journey and another of my favorite modern Dante-inspired stories, Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.
The damned are there because they offended a theological system that enforces certain consequences of suffering. But part of that theological system has also decreed that salvation was available to all men. Christ in his ransom had procured endless mercy. One need only wish to be saved, need only surrender his soul to God in a last gasp of contrition, and he will be saved. He may have to suffer at length in Purgatory, but, once there, his place is reserved in Heaven and he will in time arrive there. Purgatory is like our modern colleges: no one can flunk out of them.

It follows then, that the only way to get into Hell is to insist upon it. One must deliberately exclude himself from grace by hardening his heart against it. Hell is what the damned have actively and insistently wished for.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a great book! I will need to pick this one up!