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Randy Boyagoda. Dante’s Indiana. Biblioasis, 2021.

Header image: Mary McCleary, To Be Redeemed From Fire By Fire, 1999. Mixed-media collage on paper. 45 x 75 inches. Used by permission.



IN 2013, RANDY BOYAGODA threw down the gauntlet in an iconoclastic essay:

I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor. I’m also sick of Walker Percy, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dostoevsky. Actually, I’m sick of hearing about them from religiously minded readers.… What do they have in common? They’re all dead.

A writer with less chutzpah might have withered under the pressure to write something, anything new after killing so many darlings of the Christian literati. But in the intervening years, Boyagoda has published numerous essays, short stories, and two novels—Original Prin (2018) and Dante’s Indiana (2021)—the first of a planned trilogy about the semi-autobiographical Dr. Princely Umbilagoda, or as he’s known in the books, Prin.

The late critic Harold Bloom might have framed Boyagoda’s cheeky jabs as a strategic ground-clearing. The essay is a prime example of what Bloom calls “clinamen,” a “swerve” away from inherited influences that ends repetition and allows for the creation of something new. For writers, such a swerve is seldom an accident—more like a calculated move.

In an interview a few years ago, Boyagoda admitted to me that he intended to “draw attention to and lament a situation and then to create a space for the reception of [his] own work.” As precedent, he points to T.S. Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which is both a manifesto for modernist poetry and hermeneutical key to The Waste Land, a poem Eliot and Pound were still polishing when the essay dropped. Eliot was conditioning the ground to receive his work. So, it turns out, was Boyagoda.

Looking back, I can’t shake the sense that his offhand mention of Eliot was a not-so-subtle nudge in the direction Boyagoda was already heading with Dante’s Indiana, a book still very much in utero at the time, a story in which the contemporary heartland of Middle America is filtered through the text of a thirteenth-century Florentine poet. If that seems like a strange mashup, it is. But T.S. Eliot can tell us why it works.


The Living Tradition

In Eliot’s terms, the “best” writers work from a “historical sense,” by which they paradoxically grasp “the pastness of the past” while remaining aware of its ongoing and very real presence. This is how all artists worth their salt work within a tradition they both form and are formed by. Tradition is organic, alive. And if we read carefully, we’ll see that Boyagoda’s annoyance in his essay “Faith in Fiction” is not with dead writers but with Christian readers who are ignorant of or indifferent to the living voices of this organic tradition.

In The Waste Land, in the concluding lines of the section called “Burial of the Dead,” Eliot conjures up an afternoon stroll along the Thames. The cold, detached, Eliot-esque speaker observes:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, we exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

A reader with a “historical sense” knows that this is not merely a morbid perception of the London masses scuttling about the modern metropolis, but a direct echo of Dante, reverberating across seven centuries. And more than an echo. Robert Durling translates the fifty-seventh line of the third canto of the Inferno: “I would not have believed death had undone so many.” Yes: Eliot ripped the line wholesale. But the line takes on new life in a new poem in a new age.

When Dante the pilgrim speaks these words, he is observing the hordes of shades in hell’s vestibule, unfit either for punishment or paradisal bliss. These “cowards, displeasing to both God and his enemies” follow meaningless banners. There is perpetual movement but no destination or purpose, no rest, for these “wretches who were never alive” even in life. Eliot, the banker-poet, draws on this horrific scene to cast a diabolical light upon the frenetic motion that animated the cold, deadened economic heart of the British empire in the early twentieth century.

Both Eliot and Boyagoda draw on the terrifying third canto, which fully immerses us in the putrid, claustrophobic horror of hell. It will be thirty more cantos and thousands of lines of terza rima before we emerge into the open air again to see the twinkling fire of the heavens. The canto’s real terror, though, is in Dante’s presentation of the logic of “contrapasso.” As Virgil leads Dante to the shores of the Acheron, they watch the damned shades rush and fight each other to board Charon’s ferry, which will carry them to perdition. It’s odd. They want to get on the boat. Dante is confused. Virgil explains:

My son…those who
die in God’s anger all come together here from every land:
and they are ready to cross over the river, for
God’s justice so spurs them, that fear turns to desire.

Hell is where one desires what one should fear, where one longs for self-destruction. And this is ultimately the basis for the contrapasso—literally “opposite suffering”—that permeates Inferno. Every punishment fits its crime, because every punishment is the natural consequence of that crime. C.S. Lewis pithily summarized the doctrine of hell best, remarking that “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” Hell is the place where God says to sinners: “Thy will be done.” Forever.

In the Christendom of the late Middle Ages, the kingdom of hell, like the kingdom of heaven, had real bite. Today, such images might invoke curiosity or smug disdain, but not many people think of them as real places. But what if these kingdoms, in the words of Jesus or Paul, were “near”? What if they were not other realms, but already interwoven into the fabric of the here and now? Eliot believed that.


A Dantean Vision of America

And if you read Boyagoda closely, he does too. For Boyagoda, the kingdoms of hell and heaven can be glimpsed within the materialistic, secular, post-9/11 world of the fraying Pax Americana. Dante’s Indiana is a real authorial swerve from Eliot’s Waste Land, no doubt, but the Canadian Catholic novelist gathers embers from the Dantean tradition and breathes new life upon them to shed a satirical light—and a little purgatorial fire—on what might be another empire decaying less from without than from within.

In many ways, Original Prin might seem a more apt novel for exploring the decline of post-9/11 America. In that novel, Boyagoda first introduces us to Prin, a Canadian Catholic professor of literature with four daughters who teaches at a Toronto university threatened by the forces of capitalism (the autobiography is a bit on the nose). Prin receives a terminal cancer diagnosis and then hears the voice of God tell him to “go.” This is not a normal occurrence in the disenchanted West, but like Abraham and Noah and other heroes of the faith before him, the unlikely Prin takes the words seriously, and that makes all the difference. He goes where the voice leads, and his absurdist leap of faith lands him in the fictional Islamicist nation of Dragomans, where he is almost destroyed by a gym bro turned religious fundamentalist (who also claims to hear God’s voice). Original Prin is a wickedly brilliant look at the complexity of a living faith in the fraught landscapes of religious fanaticism and secular indifference. Before Dante’s Indiana, stop and read Original Prin.

In Dante’s Indiana, Boyagoda changes tack, panning out to bring America into focus. The novel shifts away from caliphates and jihad and turns its sights to the Christian fundamentalists of Middle America who have mingled (read: bastardized) their faith with the creative destruction of American capitalism. If Original Prin unsettles Western views of religious enemies abroad, Dante’s Indiana looks squarely at religious enemies on the home front. And they are legion.

For starters, the forces that turned Prin’s Catholic university into a crass, for-profit “New U”—a “condominium and assisted-living complex”—are not benign. There is spiritual war afoot. And Boyagoda is at his satirical (and Dantean) best when he attends to the absurd realities of modern life as manifestations of idolatrous, disordered desires. Here Prin reflects on the sorry state of his institution, where a multi-story home for aging boomers has been built above the former chapel:

When the college closed, most of the pews were sold to prop companies and salvage shops.… A few ended up as “Come to Jesus benches” scattered around the beanbag lounge of a startup. The nave had been reduced to half its size, and a brick stack had been built directly over the Holy of Holies to protect the unleavened Godhead from seven stories of padded feet.

Western Christians might complacently think that religious warfare only looks like a mosque or Hindu temple replacing a church (or vice versa), but Boyagoda suggests it might also look like the New U. And with his help, we can see this mundane war all around us: pews once used for worship are now theater props and designer antiques; dead churches are gutted to become white-collar workplaces or condos or pubs. Boyagoda is at his best when he shows us that we don’t have to wait for the afterlife to see contrapasso at work. In this life, we get what we love. And we love many of the wrong things in the wrong ways. There are many false gods and many temples to them.

The temple at the heart of the novel is a Dante-themed amusement park, the fever-dream of Charlie Tracker, a multi-millionaire from Terre Haute, Indiana, and CEO of Tracker Packaging. Prin has returned from Dragomans and been commissioned by the Trackers for his academic credentials. Although both Charlie and his son Hugh are quick to point out that Prin is “not exactly a Dante scholar,” they realize that for anyone outside Prin’s narrow field, his PhD is all that matters. Prin, ever the opportunist, admits he’s no expert but has skimmed enough Dante to—here Hugh cuts him off: “…teach dumb Americans.”

Surface “expertise” can be commodified. And any academic who knows when someone with money wants to “leverage their platform” knows how this game is played. Prin does too. His job is to make Charlie Tracker’s dream real: to fuse the crass materialism of Disney World with the crass evangelicalism of Genesis Extreme and coat the entire monstrosity with a veneer of academic credibility. Pimping out Dante in Podunk, Indiana, seems like an easy, Don DeLillo–esque premise for laughs. But Boyagoda’s satire is as subtle as it is sharp. Under this swirling vortex of the entertainment industrial complex are the real people of the Midwest. They flit through the novel like shades, wandering nomads uprooted and destroyed by global capitalism. While the CEOs like the Trackers fiddle, they burn. The kingdom of hell is near.

When Prin meets the American Medici Charlie Tracker (who is arguably too much a caricatured cliché of the right to ever become a rounded, complex character), Prin discovers that his patron loves “mixed martial arts, monster trucks, housing for illegal immigrants, prepping for the end times, and something called the NFL Winter Combine.” And, of course, he also loves Dante. Tracker builds himself a “Mantua Cave,” which is “the finest private collection of Dante editions and Dante memorabilia in the entire Midwest.” But just as his company specializes in packaging—that is, it makes no real products—Charlie’s Dante obsession is all surface, wrapping, veneer.

Tracker is well aware that since World War II, the American heartland has been gutted of manufacturing, denying meaningful work to entire generations. For many young men “midway through life’s journey,” the only option was to go abroad and fight to defend a way of life that was being outsourced to the lowest bidder on cheap labor. Charlie tells Prin, “Most of the other manufacturing around town—Coke bottles, CDs, DVDs, ICBMS—had either moved or shut down.” When Prin asks what they even package, Charlie’s response is superficially humorous yet glaringly aware.

That’s the big question these days. When it comes to clear packaging, and a company our size, the machines can only really handle a few molds at the scale the client’s looking for, and if you pick the wrong one, you’re in trouble.… The CDs for Born in the USA were stamped right here in Terre Haute. But those products require a heavy-gauge plastic, and the carrying cost on the raw-materials side was just too much for us. And how long until CDs went the way of eight-tracks? … Anyway, to answer your questions: before they went completely offshore, we used to work with toy companies a lot—action figures, baby dolls, toy guns, miniature tea sets. Turn of the century, we won the sole US clamshell contract for the New Star Wars line. We’ve held our own against South Korea, then Taiwan, and now China. But that Jar Jar Binks almost killed us!

There is no mention of Dante here, but Tracker sounds like Francesca in canto 5 of Inferno. There is no remorse, no culpability, no sense that such actions are the choices of individuals and collectives moving toward what they desire even as it destroys real lives. There is an ineluctable helplessness in Tracker’s explanation of the postwar economy’s effects on his company. Boyagoda, though, wants us to wake up and hear the diabolism in such shoulder-shrugging justifications of the status quo.

Tracker tells Prin that when work moved to cheaper overseas locations, the people in places like Terre Haute were left to work in “treatment centers, retirement homes, prisons, and retraining centers.” In the American heartland, profit-maximizing logic has constricted people’s choices to work driven by addiction, crime, and aging. One can almost hear T.S. Eliot, the native Missourian in his self-imposed exile from America, looking out over these rust belts and muttering, “I had not thought that globalism had undone so many.” This is American contrapasso.

This is why the Trackers are building their temple to Dante. A community shorn of purpose needs distraction. Charlie confides in Prin that the good country people of the washed-out Midwest “want to go for a drive while they can still buy gas and have a little fun and see something good and eat something good and sure, maybe learn something, too. They’re not stupid about their money or their time.” Charlie likes Prin because he’s neither a serious professor nor a “rosary swinging” Catholic. Because, after all, to corporatize Dante in a theme park is to defang the Commedia. It is to turn an epic poem about hope—the real meaning of comedy—into a place of shallow, comical amusement.

Compared with his Dante-loving, philanthropist father, Hugh Tracker is a self-serving misanthropist. As Prin learns, Hugh wants to “make [the company] relevant for the twenty-first century” and will transition it to manufacturing pain medication. In a Dantean sense, there might be nothing more damning than the willful creation of anesthetics—drugs that deaden people to the sensation of life. And when Hugh and Prin go up the road for a research trip to a run-down theme park called Dizzy’s World, we are given a horrifying glimpse of where the numbing of the middle classes can end.

There were maybe a dozen vehicles in the gravel parking lot, rusted-out family vans and cars with garbage bags blocking the rear windows.… Their engines were on, music was on, and their front windows went up and down for each rag-and-bone visitor. There were so many of them, it was hard to think that even in this little parking lot in a little town in Indiana, it had undone so many of them. Some were standing still, but most were slouching towards nothing in particular. They were just shuffling around the parking lot, back and forth, back and forth, between the black cars and their cars and a couple of picnic tables, back and forth between scores and getting enough money to get to score.… Three women approached us. All were pockmarked and scratching their chests.… Others came up and backed away, surprised we were real and here.

This is how Boyagoda’s satire works: while the egomaniacal entrepreneur and diva-ish academic debate details about the dry ice and skating rink in the amusement park, a real hell is near, if only they can see it. The opioid crisis ravaging the heartland is as terrifying as any canto in Inferno, and Boyagoda, through silly antics, is trying to make us see. The pockmarked hordes, wandering aimlessly, scratching at their bleeding chests, selling their bodies for a score, desiring the very things that will undo them, are manifestations of a spiritual nihilism that pervades an entire culture.

The warped desire of the Trackers to “put the fun back into the fear of God” is perhaps the most hellishly nihilistic embrace of American decadence—and is the target of Boyagoda’s most acidic satire. In his youth, Charlie Tracker read Dante amid the horrors of Vietnam, and he keenly opines that “a man could live or die from reading it.” Even so, his insulating wealth—the object of his heart’s desire—has constricted his movement. Like the shades clambering for Acheron’s ferry, Tracker is blindered to his goal. He is now, as his son Hugh bluntly puts it, “profiting off addiction.” And when the revelation—the great unveiling—finally shows the Trackers for what they are, they vanish. Like Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby almost a century before, the Trackers are “careless people [who] smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness.” They fly off scene. Out of sight and out of mind. American contrapasso.


Remembering Dante Forward

The year 2021 marked the seven-hundredth anniversary of Dante’s death, a date celebrated with webinars, conferences, special editions, and documentaries. As we remember Dante, we might do well to consider what “remembering” meant in Dante’s own time. Medievalist Mary Carruthers has spent much of her career exploring the ways in which the Middle Ages understood memory as a “forward looking” faculty. In The Craft of Thought, Carruthers sheds light on memory’s often misunderstood role in the study of rhetoric. Not simply a tool for recitation, the art of memorization trained a person—literary or otherwise—to remember as a means of constructing an interior architecture of the mind and soul. Such an architecture allowed one to store up images, ideas, words, and names in order that new thought might arise from such a well-laid foundation. Memory, in the medieval imagination, was generative. And it generated, among other things, a way of perceiving.

In this sense, Boyagoda’s novel might be one of the best ways to “remember Dante forward”—to remember him in the present tense. By channeling Dante in a satirical vein, Boyagoda helps us see the impulses shaping the American and global economic order as spiritual forces—and the decisions made by individuals, communities, and even nations as products of disordered desire.

But tragedy is not the final word. Dante, Boyagoda, and all Christians in all times are called to be absurd believers in a happier ending, in the possibilities of grace and restoration. That is, we are called to hope. It’s not a choice. And Boyagoda concludes the interlacing hilarity and tragedy of Dante’s Indiana with Prin witnessing the completion of the theme park he helped create. He sees “gymnasts in white feathers and brown body suits, building themselves into giant eagles and then laughing as they flapped the wings and took flight, leaping and tumbling to the floor. The sound of the choirs. A distant spread of crashing joy.”

What does Prin see? What is Boyagoda training us to see? The Christian story is not naïve. It knows we can make a hell of this world and we often do. We pimp out not only Dante, but Christ. We worship an idol and ignore the icon. But sometimes the icon and the idol are the same thing approached differently. If evil has no substance, it must always parasitically attach itself to something of substance that is good. And in Boyagoda’s novel, Prin realizes that even the bastardized consumerist temple of Terre Haute is pointing at something real. Even purposeless distractions and soul-destroying addictions have their roots in a good longing for something that might give life, and one of eudaemonia—of joy.

Because there were only two abandoned sports arenas available, Charlie Tracker could only make the inferno and paradise into amusement parks. The kingdoms of damnation and beatification are on display. But purgatory—the world where change, grace, and conversion are possible—has no theme park. This is the hope: That purgatory is this world, now. That Terre Haute (literally the “high land”) is the mount of purgatory, where there is still terrible fire, but fire laced with the hope that it might be purifying.

In the novel’s final chapter, a cataclysm permanently transforms the town. When evacuation orders go out to the “great souls, lost souls, stuck souls” of Terre Haute, Boyagoda does not frame the event merely as tragic destruction. Something diabolical has been wiped out, and the residents, now exiles and pilgrims, are left in search of new meaning. They, like Dante in his Commedia and Prin at the outset of the novel, are lost in the wood in the middle of things.

Our call, the one Boyagoda issues to every reader, is to find them. And in doing so, to realize that we too need to be found.



Doug Sikkema is an assistant professor in the Core Program and English at Redeemer University and an editor with Front Porch Republic.




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