Finding Dante in the Infernal Midwest

In his most recent and best novel to date, Randy Boyagoda rides a rollercoaster that could easily derail into infernal entertainment—the kind of laissez-faire comedy that demons breed in the Florentine’s underworld. A comic talent tackling joblessness, family breakdown, and opioid addiction could unwittingly satirize with too much levity, leaving us queasy in a far-from-funny Bouncy House. Think the cynical cartoons of Vonnegut’s lampoons. Boyagoda’s recipe seems at first sight like a satire of this type: an evangelical millionaire and factory baron is constructing a theme park modeled after the Divine Comedy in the middle of working-class Indiana. But if some of his previous novels are weakened by too-clever winks wincing after wit, the punchlines of his latest pursue a proper pathos instead. Yes, the novel nods, our age abounds in Technicolor absurdities and dramatic discrepancies impossible to ignore. But the book brims with a big question: what can still be salvaged from even the terraces of a middle-America addicted to escapes at any cost?

With its admixture of playfulness and gravitas, Dante’s Indiana is an unlikely footnote to David Foster Wallace’s peerless novel Infinite Jest, which wows readers with an extended analogy between addiction and entertainment. Boyagoda’s book is funny without having what Wallace calls “too much fun.” Joelle Van Dyne, the character who chases this species of enjoyment in Jest, is the star of “The Entertainment,” a film that pleasures its viewers to death. Outside the film, she overdoses on cocaine and ends up in narcotic recovery. Like Wallace, Boyagoda tells a cautionary tale tracing the scary sinews that bind things we’d rather keep separate. He bids us aboard his own carnival with plenty of laughs, joshing what passes for education and the way we care for our elderly, but the carousel is punctuated with portraits of the living damned—opioid addicts crying out between the funhouse mirrors, telling terrible truths about my Midwest homeland; their sobering specters visited me for days, asking alms far beyond the cost of this $16.96 paperback book.

The story is founded on a family-owned factory. Tracker Packaging hails from Terre Haute, Indiana, and its fictional backstory bears a clear resemblance to the actual city’s economic metamorphoses. The longtime boss Charlie Tracker has committed his life to keeping Midwest folks gainfully employed, but the business’s heyday wrapping Star Wars toys has given way to precarious survival: producing tubes for “mastige cosmetics”—makeup with “mass market prestige.”

Uncertain about the future of the factory, Charlie has conceded control of the business to his son; the salt of the earth veteran who discovered Dante in Vietnam is replaced by “Call-me-Hugh,” a millennial progeny on a paleo diet who scrupulously applies hand sanitizer. He washes his hands of more than microbes: the “start-up” son is immune to qualms over a dubious investment partnership with a capital management firm based in Poland.

Boyagoda’s allusions to figures in the Divine Comedy aim for connotative clues rather than perfect parallels. Both “Call-me-Hugh” and his Dantean counterpart Hugh Capet have avaricious ambitions, but whereas the former is cocksure, the latter, prostrate on Purgatory’s floor, laments his misdeeds. The father of the medieval French dynasty sees from the afterlife a difficult fact: his sins commenced centuries of decline. Unlike Capet, Charlie’s “namesake” Charles Martel has obtained Paradise in the celestial Sphere of Venus—that planet devoted to love. Martel tells Dante that “the world below . . . held me a little while; had it been more, / much evil would not have been, that came to be.” Charles, a former ruler, bemoans “bad government, which ever wrings / the hearts of poor souls prone beneath its load,” for his family’s ill-rule provoked a popular uprising that left in power “a degenerate from a rich estate” who knows little more than how to “stick their money in a chest”: this nostalgic wish that someone better had maintained the throne—the Hapsburgs, say, not rapacious incompetents—has clear resonance in Dante’s Indiana. Charlie, who is depicted as a kind of noble ruler, watches his hard-won gains teeter, as Call-me-Hugh is skilled at little more than playing around with dark money.

Instead of going gently into retirement, Charlie cooks up a solution that is at once more otherworldly and more American: a theme park based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, sans Purgatory. (“Look, there were only two vacant arenas, and, well, everybody gets heaven and hell, Prin, and, no offense, but Purgatory is more of a, well, you know.”) Call-Me-Hugh’s too-slick double-dealing becomes the epitome of controversy when he announces plans to “package generic painkillers in the middle of a place that’s been ruined by painkiller addiction.” The prospects for Terre Haute’s progress are brought to an impasse. As Call-Me’s critics make clear, though many are desperate for stable work, there is something devilish about growth-at-any-price, this unprincipled economics so hell-bent on praxis that it’s blind to the unpaid spiritual receipts.

Meanwhile, Charlie’s noblese oblige is disarmingly inventive: what at first comes off as a decadent solution to a serious human concern, a gimmicky blend of high and low culture, starts to look like the best way forward. The unthinkable happens: we begin to root for the theme park’s completion.

Prin Umbilagoda is an outsider academic anxious for work in the wake of a run-in with airport terrorists. He’s brought aboard because Dante’s Indiana will qualify for a series of tax breaks if the project is proven to be educational. He is needed precisely for his lack of expertise, his middling powers. Charlie has already hired several Dante scholars, but the naysaying intellects profess perpetual rejection: none of the rides or booths, none of the architecture or entertainment is “faithful enough to Dante.” Prin, on the contrary, isn’t weighted by footnotes. Further, he needs this venture to succeed. He’s estranged from his family on account of infidelities narrated in the prequel Original Prin. (The parts of the novel that worry over the barely-threaded beads of his Catholic marriage to Molly, his wife’s renewed friendship with a Mormon ex-boyfriend, is not as convincing as the story’s real epicenter, though his eventual heart-to-heart with Molly is goodly understated and awkward and moving. Often, though, these explorations of marital strain strive too hard for emotional delivery and end up sounding like false-note poetry.)

​Boyagoda is at his best registering the depressed Midwest. A couple walks beneath a burning Budweiser sign, “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.” Like Dante’s damned, they have “deep wells around their vacant eyes,” and though their mouths are going through the motions of chatting gum-chewers, the punchline bespeaks their true state: “Pills.” And as we strain to see the pock-faced pain, the image gains a harsher shade: they’re pushing kids in “washed-out snowsuits,” Spider-man propped in their laps. Here is no sentimental flyover shot of post-industrial and opioid crises. He leaves us a haunting record of the hell-bound; the singular precision of his pictures reveals the ​hard-to-heal suffering and ​scattered ​abandonment and addiction that populate the outsourced circle of America.

Remember that petrifying passage in Purgatory, where “each shade had dark and hollow eyes,” faces “so emaciated that / their taut skin took its shape from bones beneath”:

their eyes seemed like a ring that’s lost its gems;
and he who, in the face of man, would read
OMO would here have recognized the M.

Dante is startled by these famished excuses for humans, but, finding that their emaciation is a purgation for former gluttony, he can rest in hope. Boyagoda’s Indiana is not wholly hopeless, but many of its dead-eyed burdens feel as permanent as hell. He proves to be an astute student of David Foster Wallace, who strove to locate the good that could live within a corridor of horrors.

As Wallace told Larry McCaffery, “If you operate . . . from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize that we still are human beings, now. Or can be.” Boyagoda excels at painting human ruins of what makes our times especially tough; he does so in a manner that risks sentimentality and wins the gamble. But he does so in part by incarnating inhumanity.

At times this comes with O’Connoresque grotesque—as in the form of a man auditioning to play Satan. As is to be expected in a run-down region, auditions for various parts have attracted a motley crew of mediocre talent. But when the would-be-Lucifer does his thing we wish his act wasn’t so excellent, this thin and bald and barefoot man whose “face was painted blood red”:

In his mouth were the naked legs of a very small man. A dull metal band ran around his forehead, on which were mounted two other faces, one painted shock-white, and the other black as night. These hung down on either side of his own face. In each of the side-mouth faces was the upper half of a very small man.

The actor’s manner of eternally eating his enemies, told with a restrained but evocative prose typical of Boyagoda’s most mature passages, comes in a key familiar to all Midwesterners who’ve stopped along an Indiana interstate to buy a bag of sunflowers at a badly-lit gas station populated by prostitutes and dealers, well-stocked with sterile condoms and cheap Black & Mild cigars: he was “chewing the bodies, working them like he was trying to split skin from shell, shell from seed,” all the while sobbing and silent. Prin tries to reach out, ask the man if he needs anything, but the auditionee’s mumbles are indecipherable and he exits the scene and the novel forever, defying all hopes of sought-after communion. The finality of the departure is a shocking articulation of the Catholic catechism’s definition of hell as “eternal separation from God,” figured here through two humans made in His image and likeness.

But then, not all inhabitants of Indiana remain in the inferno in perpetuity. Frank, a veteran of Tracker Packaging, has lost his daughter to opioid addiction. (Turns out he’s not alone in raising her children: “Did you notice, Prin, that [the company party] was all kids and grandparents? And none of us ask each other where our kids are?”) Frank and Prin travel to Dizzy’s World, a nearby theme park that’s practically defunct, to get ideas for Dante’s Indiana: should the floor of hell be an ice-skating rink? Do Paulo and Francesca, Dante’s wind-whipped lovers evoke the teacup tilt-a-whirl? Should they imitate Dizzy’s main attraction the way Dante competes with Ovid’s Metamorphosis?: turning the dragon-driven rollercoaster into the baby-faced fraudulent monster Geryon?

Some of what’s human needs CPR badly. But some of our most ambitious inventions, which vie for life support at any price, would be better burnt by purifying fires—like the family factory of former glory, whatever precariousness its disappearance causes. We are not made for such sterile servitude.

Frank is wracked with nostalgic reminiscence of a childhood having good clean fun there; the place now protests “cash only,” and intoxicated souls make illicit love in the broken teacups. But he’s really here to find his daughter among the addicts who roam Dizzy’s parking lot. Like Dante searching out his fellow Italians in the rank fires of the underworld, Frank asks the strung-out souls if they’ve seen his Megan, taking out his wallet and showing a picture. Suddenly—seeing the wallet flashed—all of these sinners are Megan’s friends, but when he puts his money back into his pocket “Most of the people wandered off, mouths agape. Two remained. Skinny and scraggly, windbreakers and dirty jeans, sunken-faced and sad-eyed. Fidgety and gumming their raw, red faces.”

Boyagoda shows us where the inferno intersects with post-industrial Indiana: here, where good clean entertainment is subsumed and surpassed by dirty needles; here, Frank says, “People’s kids are here,” and they approach Prin dressed in that depressed Midwest that you could almost call Satanic chic: “serpentine dreadlocks” or “almost no hair . . . all were pockmarked and scratching their chests. The first asked if we had any clean needles.” The bird-women Harpies who peck at Dante’s suicides have been here recently—have wreaked their havoc on the ruined faces. As in the Inferno souls, approach Prin and Frank, “others came up and backed away, surprised we were real and here.” Eventually, Frank’s daughter phones home, signals to her father that her self-exile will soon be over. A fatherly Orpheus, his stubborn persistence forges a fledgling reunification.

“In dark times,” says Wallace, “the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human . . . that still live and glow despite the time’s darkness.” But as Wallace knew well, and as Boyagoda shows, this chiaroscuro art can only bum a light by rendering the reach of our moment’s shadows. The recovery of Megan is counterpointed by a number of plot threads in need of the Light.

Charlie will repeat the questionable governance of his Dantean forbears; with a pigheaded resistance that is at least impolitic and plausibly immoral, he rejects his one black employee’s principled counsel to alter the black-faced rollercoaster named Geryon, this the face of the national outrage over a police officer’s killing of a black boy named Garyon: “BREAKING: RACIST THEME PARK SET TO OPEN IN INDIANA.” Boyagoda achieves something uncanny and rare here, blending courageous political incorrectness with sincere compassion. As was the case with Charles Martel’s grandfather, poor rule ignites a popular protest. Crowds converge on Dante’s Indiana and the theme park courts eternal closure.

Shadows grow, in this novel, across both father and son’s satanic ventures. Charlie, desperate to see his theme park succeed, makes a devil’s bargain with a Christian “ministry” that plans to update Dante’s “chastity belt” by manufacturing “chastity pills” at Tracker Packaging. Hugh is determined to save Terre Haute by coaxing the locals into labors that will advance addiction.

As father and son clamor over the family legacy and their competing claims both called into question, the factory building is left unprotected, and Frank takes to driving its perimeter—purportedly to protect the place from the dealers. But when Prin takes a turn he finds that the truck reeks of gasoline, and all the souls Frank recruits to patrol “kept jerrycans in their trucks.”

Wallace is right about art, to a point. Some of what’s human needs CPR badly. But some of our most ambitious inventions, which vie for life support at any price, would be better burnt by purifying fires—like the family factory of former glory, whatever precariousness its disappearance causes. We are not made for such sterile servitude.

Passing through Prin’s purgatorial rollercoaster, seeing the sights beyond the theme park lights, the reader is sharpened by shocks of recognition, the sort that Dante’s commedia gives us. As Dorothy Sayers says of the Florentine’s figuras: “That man presents the image of something in civilization which will corrupt and ruin civilization: of something in myself which (if I do not recognize and repent it) will assuredly corrupt and ruin me).” Purged and entertained, ready to salvage what remains (to “Find them. / Find them and be found.”), we exit the state looking over our shoulders, hounded by the God of Dante’s Indiana.