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    cover image from Dante's Indiana

    American Contrapasso

    A Review of Dante’s Indiana by Randy Boyagoda

    By Mike St. Thomas

    September 3, 2021
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    Contrapasso functions as one of the guiding principles of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. Literally meaning “to suffer the opposite,” the term, coined by Dante himself, explains the appropriateness of the punishments endured by each resident of hell. For getting caught up in the sin of lustful passion, Paolo and Francesca are swirled around by strong winds. The hypocrites, whose life on earth was sharply divided between external and internal, are forced to shuffle under heavy leaden cloaks, forever weighed down by their appearances. A poet who encouraged the prince of England to murder his father wanders around hell carrying his head in his hands, his own body marred by the kind of unnatural separation he caused in the royal family.

    Dante offers us more than just a catalog of sinners and saints; his most lasting contribution is his vision, which demands that we see the world as ultimately connected – inner self to outer self, individual to community. Throughout the entire Divine Comedy, he imagines the particular suffering or reward of each resident of the afterlife as a kind of inevitable outcome of the way he or she lived on earth. In Dante’s world, our desires and actions produce fruit as natural as that which grows on trees. Contrapasso renders that fruit visible.

    Randy Boyagoda’s Dante’s Indiana is many things – knee-slapping satire, social commentary, spiritual pilgrimage. But above all, it is an attempt to bring contrapasso to bear on contemporary American life, both implicitly and explicitly. The novel, a sequel to Original Prin (2018), begins in the midst of spiritual crisis. Prin, who, like Boyagoda himself, is a Canadian of Sri Lankan descent and a professor of English, suffers PTSD from a terrorist attack, which cripples his ability to be present with his family. Husband and wife have effectively separated and she has taken their children to live with relatives. His small Catholic college, now comically transformed into an assisted-living facility, has little to offer him in the way of meaningful employment. Desperate for money and a purpose, he stumbles into a job as an academic advisor to a retired businessman and Dante devotee who plans to build a Divine Comedy-themed amusement park in Terre Haute, Indiana.

    Through the exaggerations of the plot, Boyagoda situates his protagonist in the midst of several crises facing contemporary America. Most prominent among them is the demise of the Rust Belt. Boyagoda’s Terre Haute is populated by strip malls, pickup trucks with radios set to right-wing talk shows, and, sadly, grandparents raising grandchildren, their own children lost to the opioid epidemic. The novel’s riotously humorous mixing of high and low culture is anchored by its unflinching depictions of those caught in the throes of pills:

    The man was carrying a black garbage bag that bulged with dirty laundry and the woman was pushing a stroller. They were wearing ski jackets over pajama bottoms, plaid and pink. Both had long hair that looked like overcooked pasta, and they walked with a languid-to-rickety bounce, as if their bodies were built of clattering coat hangers … I turned and saw their bony and pocked faces, the deep well around their vacant eyes. Their mouths were moving like they were chewing gum and chatting, but they were doing neither. They were neither young nor old. Two little kids in washed-out snowsuits sat in the stroller.

    Passages like these purposefully echo the observations Dante makes as he journeys through hell, whose residents’ distorted appearances and fruitless actions reveal the necessary outcomes of their choices on earth. In his own novel, Boyagoda uses this lens of contrapasso to suggest that those caught in opioid abuse are the unhealthy fruit of our entire consumerist culture. Our economy profits on the weak and left-behind, and all are implicated in the self-destructive habits of a certain segment of the population. Terre Haute’s economy consists of “treatment centres, retirement homes, prisons, and retraining programs,” and its once-thriving packaging plant is transitioning to manufacturing blister packs for painkillers.

    As Prin gets more deeply involved in the Dante project, we learn more about his own spiritual crisis. It amounts to a combination of things: panic attacks, pills, ennui, and separation from his family. Prin is not perfect, but he is earnest. Though he struggles to show it, he wants deeply to be reunited with his wife and daughters. “Sursum corda,” he prays throughout the book. “Lift up my heart.” On a trip to Florence, Dante’s home, Prin visits the tomb of Beatrice, Dante’s beloved and inspiration for his own pilgrimage in the Divine Comedy. Prin thinks of his own wife, thousands of miles away, and his prayer changes shape: “Sursum cordibus,” he prays. “That our lifted hearts might be one.” This outward movement in his prayer, towards others, is a turning point in Prin’s crisis, just as it was for Dante.

    As in his first novel, Boyagoda mixes the sacred and profane to great effect. A group of Dante scholars is already on the theme-park project when Prin joins, but they are too erudite to be of much help designing entertainment for the masses. Prin, on the other hand, is hired because he is able to speak to everyday people about someone like Dante. One of the opening scenes involves him giving a Dante lecture to a handful of shoppers in a Kroger Supermarket. Prin attends Sunday Mass in downtown Terre Haute with “widows and winos,” and lives in a bare efficiency apartment overlooking a multilane highway, where he eats single-serving food from Walmart.

    Readers might wonder how a novel so enmeshed in the banalities of American culture could bear any resemblance to a religious epic poem from the Middle Ages. But to think of the Divine Comedy as the domain of intellectuals is to misunderstand Dante’s intentions. The poet himself decided against writing in Latin, the traditional choice for such an undertaking, in favor of using an Italian vernacular, the daily language of his people. Before he can ascend the seven purifying terraces of purgatory and approach heaven, Dante must descend into the darkness of hell, and mingle with the villains and disgraced celebrities of his own day. When one considers Dante’s emphasis on the commonness of our spiritual journey, Boyagoda’s situating his story in the post-industrial American heartland starts to make sense.

    One of the noblest characters in the novel is Frank, a semiretired blue-collar worker. Frank and his wife raise their grandchildren because their own daughter, Megan, has fallen into drug addiction. Frank simultaneously wants to protect his grandkids from their mother and do everything he can to support her. He searches for her repeatedly in her favorite locales, and when he does receive a text from her, drops everything to go to her. Unwilling to bring her around the children but desperate to help her, he watches over her round-the-clock in a motel. Such fierce love, underscored by Frank’s hidden pain (and that of so many in his situation), makes for some of the most moving sections of the novel.

    Similarly effective is the description of those who audition for roles at the new amusement park. An amalgam of carneys and addicts and the perpetually unemployed, the applicants are clearly weighed down by real suffering. Prin tours the park after it opens and sees the performers staggering around, “split-apart or missing body parts or holding extra body parts. Talking to themselves or asking someone, anyone, to hear their stories through broken teeth and cracked lips.” Prin prays that they are “paid performers” and not displaying their real suffering. But that seems an irrelevant distinction when talking about an encounter with the Divine Comedy, for in connecting the suffering of others with one’s own interior life, contrapasso aims to collapse the distance between appearance and reality – between art and life.

    By locating the sacred within the profane, Dante’s Indiana offers a counternarrative to that of the culture wars. Boyagoda clearly recognizes the decline of family and social values lamented by the religious right. But instead of drawing a stark line between clean and unclean, between “us” and “them,” his novel, following the example of Dante himself, seeks a more universal way of understanding sin. American Christianity, perhaps guided by the Puritan desire to build a shining city on a hill, has long been tempted to “wall off” the sheep from the goats, to band together the like-minded to keep evil at bay. Dante’s example, instead, emphasizes the commonality of sin, and that we see ourselves, and the face of God, in others.

    At points, Boyagoda’s novel is hilarious and deeply touching. At others, it tries, perhaps too hard, to address the compounding crises facing society. A racial protest occurs near the completion of the theme park, spurred by institutional insensitivity and Twitter-fueled misunderstanding. Boyagoda tries to simultaneously satirize the protest and humanize the family at its center, whose son was shot and killed by police. A decade ago, perhaps, it would have been easier to mix heavy and light tones when dealing with this subject, but now both the dangerous potential of social media and the reality of police violence hit too close to home for Boyagoda’s satire to have its intended effect.

    Overall, though, the novel clearly succeeds, due in large part to its warm-hearted embrace of the here and now. For Boyagoda, faith is not an escape from the problems of the world but rather a way to live more deeply in their midst. The first two books of the Prin series (it is a planned trilogy) make this abundantly clear. Contrapasso, after all, should train us to recognize ourselves in those around us – especially in those who are estranged from us or whom we consider to be enemies. Boyagoda’s book closes with a meditation on this imperative to move beyond ourselves: “Great souls, lost souls, stuck souls. Struck souls. / Where are they? / Find them / … Where are you? / Find them. / Find them and be found.”

    Contributed By MikeStThomas Mike St. Thomas

    Mike St. Thomas is the head of the English department at the Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island.

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