<B>Nick Tosches' Middle Age rant</B> Nick Tosches' new novel arrives amid a bit of a stir. There's apparently some concern that <B>In the Hand of Dante</B> might be too profane or sordid (or confusing) for many readers.

While the novel is profane, it isn't overly so. And, it does require forbearance especially given its author's seeming faith in mysteries. The flaws lie elsewhere. Although Tosches may strive for honesty and a lack of affectation, he just can't help showing off.

One of the novel's two stories is set in the Middle Ages, focusing on a spiritual quest by the poet Dante. The other not as lofty occurs in the present and follows the personal travails of the aptly named Nick Tosches," a writer (and thief). Tosches joins a Mob scheme to steal and sell the reputed original manuscript of <I>The Divine Comedy.</I> These two tales alternate and, obviously, are meant to enhance one another. This they do, occasionally. Still, some sections, focusing especially on Dante or his wife, Gemma, are too remote to be accessible; reading them is like enduring a classroom lecture.

The present-day plot eventually involves murder, thefts and dishonor among thieves. Dante's story amounts more to talk than action, as he engages in frequent dialogues with an elderly mystic. As Dante's tutelage burrows deeper into the terrain of religious issues (including, say, the meanings of certain numbers or an explication of symbols), Tosches displays his gift for research. Readers should know these pages are replete with foreign phrases in Latin, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew and Greek. Be aware, too, that there's little context, and no source notes, for guidance.

Nick Tosches known for acclaimed biographies of Dean Martin and Jerry Lee Lewis appears to be a writer who, ironically, distrusts writing ( artful whoredom") <I>and</I> publishing (which he denounces here at length). He insists this work is <I>not</I> a book, but a testament." Simplicity is his creed.

In his latest book, unfortunately, Tosches' ambition has seemingly gotten the better of him. His grand design glosses over a surprisingly unfulfilling narrative, and his prose polished but dense sometimes leaves the reader more confused than enlightened. <I>Harold Parker writes from Gallatin, Tennessee.</I>

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