Reviewed by David Gottlieb
Not to put too fine a point on it, I have had ample opportunity to gaze at the tiles of the bathroom floor, laid down in a basket-weave pattern, swirled and mottled with camouflaged faces. (Some say seeing faces in random patterns is an adaptive trait—one that helped our ancestors see predators hidden in the undergrowth. Others say it’s a sign of schizophrenia.)
Almost all the faces seemed frozen in an expression of torment. Personalities, biographies, pleas for help seemed entombed in stone before me. Do I need to up the meds? I wondered. Or am I just doing what we all do—seeing through the lens of Dante’s Inferno?
It’s worth remembering that Dante wasn’t just a poet: he was a politician, a philosopher, a trained apothecary, an original thinker. His major poetic innovation was the popularization of the vernacular. By writing in Italian (the Comedia is written in Tuscan dialect) rather than Latin, Dante made his work vastly more accessible than such works had hitherto been.
It was through this use of the vernacular that he burned his conception of the netherworld into the brains of an entire civilization. During the years in which Dante Alighieri wrote his Inferno, the first canticle of his Divine Comedy, the great poet was living in his own medieval Hell. Having reluctantly participated in the banishment of one of his mentors from his beloved fourteenth-century Florence, Dante found himself embroiled in the very kind of political machinations he had sought to overcome. He soon found himself banished as well. He harnessed his poetic and philosophical gifts, ground the axes of his grudges, fixed his romantic inclinations on a woman he’d said hello to once in the street, and set to work on an epic that would determine the course of Western conceptions of love, salvation, and damnation, that—more than seven centuries after its conjuring—still haunts our relationships and our dreams, not to mention our bathroom tiles.
Of this, the essayist and former zookeeper, modern dancer, and professor Dinty W. Moore has had more than enough.
In To Hell With It: On Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno, Moore sketches, howls, gorges, and guffaws his way through internal and external landscapes of guilt and excess to present an everyman’s critique of Dante’s Inferno. He both laments and lampoons the Inferno and its death grip on our collective and individual consciences. The result is part memoir, part travelogue, part journal left under the bed of a vacated freshman dorm at a Catholic university.
One key character in this mash-up is Moore’s own father, whose personal Hell was a mechanic’s pit at a Chevy dealership. The lesson in Moore’s father’s biography is that you don’t have to be deep in the bowels of the earth, buried upside down, gulping mouthfuls of excrement to be deep in Hell. You don’t even have to be dead; a few feet below the surface is enough. You just have to be riven with guilt and committed to numbing the pain. You’ll do this by buying stuff, most of which will wind up in bins at flea markets like the one along Route 127 during the World’s Largest Flea Market, which, to Moore, is proof plenty that Hell is right here on earth.
Moore is a product of Catholic schooling, and Dante’s depiction of Hell was burned into him like a brand. As much as he would like to rid himself of it, Moore sees its imprint everywhere: in his forebears’ hard bitten and miserable lives, in his grandfather’s suicide, in his father’s alcohol-drenched self-loathing, in flea markets and chicken-eating contests, and in “organized religion” itself. Moore is hard on Dante’s conception of Hell, and on American culture, but he isn’t shy about his own shortcomings either. Indeed, some are laid out on display like old VHS tapes of Three’s Company at the flea market. Left alone by his single mother to put himself to bed at night as a boy, Moore took to downing entire bags of Oreos with milk. “I still eat too much, too fast,” he confesses: “attacking a plate of food with disturbing alacrity, after which I feel lousy about myself, because my pants don’t fit and my willpower is a joke.” To Hell With It metes out moments of sudden hilarity and searing pain in equal measure, reminding us that a) the author doesn’t take himself too seriously, nor should we, and b) the world can be gross.
Sophomoric as it may at times seem, Moore’s slapdashery is a deliberate, at times even disciplined lament, born of the needless suffering of a conscience trained toward guilt, in a home deficient in love and long on silent suffering. The book’s defiantly crappy drawings and ADHD-addled structure aren’t accidents: they are hasty critiques of the hopeless perfectionism drilled into us by cranks like Dante and the artists who painted the images he penned.
And yet, for all that, Moore’s laziness sometimes gets to be a little much. Inveighing against “organized religion,” Moore presents a generalization so vast and so hackneyed it should never be trotted out again by any self-respecting author. Religion, Moore tritely claims, is merely “an attempt to explain what we cannot know, and the attempt inevitably fails.” One sociological perspective claims religion is a series of rituals, traditions, and texts through which cultures express, conserve, and convey themselves. Nonetheless, Moore’s experience in Catholic school and in his home provide him with an adequate antithesis, and he counters his own experience with a gusto and a silly creativity that is both caustic and comforting, cathartic and comedic. For example, Moore takes us back to the classroom of his first religion teacher, who awakens Moore’s religious skepticism. When Sister Mary Mark introduces the concept of sin to the author—he’s six years old at this point—Moore writes:
I remember raising my pale, chubby little arm that day to ask earnestly about the sin of stealing.
“But sister,” I implored, in what was undoubtedly an annoyingly squeaky voice, “let’s say a mother steals a loaf of bread because her three children are hungry. Is that a sin?”
“Yes, Dinty, that’s definitely a sin.” Sister Mary Mark wore heavy black cloth from head to toe and a stiff white bandeau under her veil that squeezed the skin of her forehead, giving her a sort of fleshy pink halo. She was quite impressive.
“But say the kids aren’t just hungry, they’re really, really hungry,” I insisted, “and the mom—she has no money at all.”
Though I had barely stolen so much as an oatmeal cookie in my life at that point, I was already searching out the loopholes.
“Well, God would probably take that into account,” Sister Mary Mark answered patiently, fingering the large black beads of her rosary, “but it is still a sin.”
“Let’s say they haven’t eaten in three days,” I whined. “They are absolutely starving.”
“Dinty, please, that’s enough. Trust that God knows what He is doing.”
Here, Moore demonstrates a fierce (if somewhat exaggerated) hunger for a just God—one who would not cause innocents to suffer, and who would understand and seek to heal a small, chubby child’s loneliness and vulnerability.
Dante might even have approved.
David Gottlieb is the director of Jewish studies at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. He has written for Tablet, Tricycle, and a variety of other publications.