Review by George Yatchisin
If you’ve even wondered why the hell we came up with hell, this is the book for you. Dinty W. Moore knows of hell well, and in all sorts of ways— among his many books are The Emperor’s Virtual Clothes: The Naked Truth about Internet Culture in 1995 when future Facebook cyborg Mark Zuckerberg was only 11 and the genre-busting memoir Between Panic and Desire in 2008. But most of all Moore’s a recovering Catholic, so of course much of what he finds between panic and desire is guilt. Not to give away the book’s ending (we all die and who knows what happens) but check out Moore’s Index to espy the tone of the book: Augustine, Dante, Organized Religion, and Original Sin are the only items indexed. And the pages flagged for this fearsome foursome are for subjects like “makes us cringe,” “makes us doubt our worth,” “makes us loathe our very existence.”
Hence this exploration of what one famous Florentine wrought. Moore uses Dante’s canto structure as the guiding shape for his own book, and while he does kick off Dinty’s inferno with some tercets, he spares us the terza rima. And then gets to some cartoons, too, that harken back to grammar school Catholic comics (with more fart jokes). One of the joys of the book is that it never quite settles into a standard format, for instance taking time to play with a classic Catechism Q&A (nuns vs. first graders = chaos, of course) while in a later chapter doing a brilliant, footnote-powered takedown of a false prophet with the too perfect-name Malarkey.
Moore’s comic timing and clever quips—he calls Augustine a whackadoodle (with confounding quotes to prove it) and refers to the Seven Deadly Sins as a listicle—flow naturally from his adult skepticism for all things afterlife, in particular eternal punishment. Like centuries of scholars, he points out how Dante got off on devising ways to torture his contemporaries, calling the Inferno a “revenge fantasy.” It’s easy to get a more genial, PG-rated George Carlin feel from this quick read, if you’re of a certain age and have Class Clown still practically memorized.
That is, until you get to the Hole. So close to hell in word and deed. While Moore name-checks Anthony Bourdain, David Foster Wallace, and Heath Ledger as just three famous examples of those with seemingly successful brilliant lives who still spiral, what truly powers the book is Moore’s sad yet keenly observed family stories. Yes, in some ways he’s re-invented the memoir again, or simply made clear all the best nonfiction connects on a personal level. Family photos help draw us in, to see the difficult life his parents led, his father turning to drinking, his mother growing “emotional armor as thick and solid as the marble in St. Peter’s Basilica.”
Moore is no less sparing of himself, openly discussing his own diagnosis of clinical depression. Yet he also recognizes his good fortune—a nearly 40-year marriage, a brilliant daughter, years of teaching, most recently as Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Ohio University. Nonetheless, listening to Dante makes him fear any moment is a sin waiting to happen, and therefore hell awaits. As he perceptively considers just some of his failings at one point:
“And don’t get me started again on lust and gluttony. It is a bit embarrassing to think of how much of my leisure time over the years has been spent fantasizing about either sex or food. (The ratio changes as we age.)
I don’t think I’m alone in this.”
He’s not in the slightest, says this late-middle-aged, food-obsessed reviewer. For when Moore gets to describing his earthly paradise, it begins with a delicious plate of pasta enjoyed in Florence itself that made me envious. And hungry. I was more than happy to see he finished the meal with one of my favorite Amaros, Lucano. It’s as if we might be able to forgive Italians for Dante’s guilt-making monument to human weakness by remembering they also know it’s best to cap each feast with a tiny bit of something very bitter in your glass, as your Amaro prepares you for whatever dark tomorrow awaits.