Reviewed by Emily Dillon
I first learned of Dinty W. Moore while researching MFA programs. Like any good prospective candidate, I read the publications of potential teachers before deciding where to apply. When I typed his name into my laptop, Dinty’s essay “Science vs. Religion: Travels in the Great American Divide” (LitHub, 2017) popped up first. A prospitious beginning to our relationship.
You see, like Dinty, I am a cultural Catholic and eternal questioner. I, too, was the kid in religion class waving my hand in the air to challenge orthodoxy and wondering how religion intersected with modern science. My CCD teacher once dubbed me the class’s “devil’s advocate,” which frankly takes on a twisted meaning in the context of religious education. Though I couldn’t know while reading his LitHub essay that Dinty would eventually become my thesis advisor and editor-in-chief, I knew that he shared the mindset of a friend.
As such, I am the perfect audience for his newest book, To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno (University of Nebraksa Press, 2021). In it, Dinty approaches religious questions anew, building on not only his investigative reporting in science and religion but also his memoir The Accidental Buddhist (Harmony, 1999) and his craft handbook The Mindful Writer (Wisdom Publications, 2016). Though some critics might be tempted to call this book a memoir, it more closely resembles an experimental argument, drawing together years of personal and researched evidence to prove that “Dante’s Hell makes no sense.”
Now it must be said: only a man struggling with his own relationship to Catholicism—and religion more broadly—would bother to write a full-length argument on a 15th-century epic poem, which, even Dinty admits, is no more than Dante’s crafty “revenge fantasy.” But, by God, I am glad Dinty decided to go down that rabbit (and hell) hole. If my generation of progressive Catholics deals with political polarization and social ostracization for divergent thinking, well then Dinty’s book catalogues the generation before, the generation where it wasn’t the community that shamed you but God Himself. And God threw you in a fiery pit. It puts my own Catholic squabbles into perspective.
It’s also an easy read, even for someone like me who hasn’t read Dante’s Inferno. Though To Hell with It mirrors the epic poem, basing the contents of each chapter on the original thirty-four cantos, you don’t need to have read the original to get Dinty’s references. After all, you descend through the circles of hell with Dinty—instead of Virgil—as your expert guide, learning about religious hypocrisy as you go. Sometimes he shares his personal experiences as evidence—as he does with gluttony and his brief foray into competitive eating at the World Chicken Festival in Kentucky—and other times he stays more distant. Two chapters avoid his personal experience entirely, the ones on anger and fraud, and while I could fake a psychological analysis about why Dinty left himself out of those, it doesn’t quite matter. Because To Hell with It is an argument and not a memoir, Dinty doesn’t have to include himself in every chapter. He’s got other ways to make his point.
And Dinty uses every other way, pulling from decades of form experimentation. To Hell with It uses found forms such as lessons from the Baltimore Catechism and chapters of The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven with footnotes, as well as visual forms like comic strips and section break symbols. My favorite is when Dinty takes the time to draw a pickle in one chapter in place of the more traditional section break dinkus. While these unorthodox choices are first and foremost a good laugh, they also mirror his rejection of orthodoxy in religion. He forces the reader to approach old questions with new eyes.
For Dinty’s part, old questions about the Catholic Church are deeply personal. Halfway through To Hell with It he asks the question that exposes his stake in the book’s argument: “Were my parents and these other people I knew, my phantom grandparents and great-grandparents, woefully unhappy because they were sinners? Or were they depressed, in some cases to the point of suicide, because their natural human weaknesses had to be defined as horrible and sinful? Because they feared when dead, the crushing agony of Hell might be their fate, forever and ever.” His question lingers through the remaining chapters, an important reminder that rhetoric and indoctrination have consequences, ones that drip down through generations, one person to the next.
So with that, it’s probably safe to say don’t read this book if you’re heavy into orthodoxy and prefer to understand with certainty how the world works. But if like most of the contemporary world you’re struggling to understand our collective Christian history and indoctrination more broadly, or even just how some things are more grey than black and white, you’ll enjoy the descent into Dinty’s mind. To hell with anyone else that tells you differently.