‘Dante’s Indiana’ by Randy Boyagoda: A Severe Satire

Shelby Hinte

We are living in an era of instant gratification—information accessible via our fingertips in a matter of seconds, food delivered to our doorsteps without so much as having to talk to another human being, fast-track degree programs, and attaining inner peace through a single weekend meditation retreat—not to mention the omnipresence of quick-fix drugs that can calm your nerves, kill your pain, eliminate excess weight, liven your libido, grant you access to euphoria, and, in general, make life a little less miserable.

Randy Boyagoda’s newest novel, Dante’s Indiana (224 pages; Biblioasis), a standalone sequel to his novel Original Prin, is a modern-day satire centered around Dante’s Inferno. In a narcotic-riddled middle America where citizens still think the American Dream is one paycheck away from reality, Prin, a middle-aged Canadian professor of Sri Lankan descent, is recruited to work as a consultant for Dante’s Indiana, a forthcoming religious theme park. It’s an odd job for a professor who is not exactly a Dante expert. But Prin is estranged from his wife and children, and after an assignment in the Middle East led to a terrorist attack, lost his job at the small Catholic university where he taught. Desperate to find some money and meaning, Prin accepts the bizarre job.

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Boyagoda’s small-town Indiana is full of factories, vacant buildings, opioids, and Jesus fanatics (or more accurately, people with god-sized holes). Millionaire Charlie Tracker has just retired from running his packaging plant and left it in the care of his son Hugh. As a retirement project, he is determined to build a theme park inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy—“Picture a Great American Heaven and Hell…Everything will be based on something in Dante but also make sense for your everyday American.” In addition to providing entertainment and fun without the cost or commute of their competing theme parks (Genesis Extreme and Dizzy’s World), Dante’s Indiana will provide much-needed jobs to the people of Terre Haute, Indiana. As opening day nears, and as many wonder what will happen now that Tracker Packaging has changed hands, it is announced that Hugh plans on teaming up with an overseas pharmaceutical company that’s producing the drugs laying waste to the community. The company’s workers are outraged.

Dante’s Indiana paints a bleak, if not downright devastated image of the drug crisis in blue-collar America. At one point, as research, Prin and two of his co-workers venture to Dizzy’s World, which has become overridden with addicts and criminals:

 “We parked away from the other cars and walked to the park entrance. The security guard was sleeping. Three women approached us. The first had stringy hair. The second had almost no hair. The third had serpentine dreadlocks. All were pockmarked and scratching their chests. The first asked if we had any clean needles. The second asked if any of us was Arun, or when Arun was coming. The third asked for a ride. . . to work? We kept walking. The women followed for a few steps, then turned back. Others came up and backed away, surprised we were real and here.”

The grim depiction of the opioid crisis, particularly of addicts, is sometimes one-dimensional. But the function of satire here makes clear the severity of the crisis.

Drugs and capitalism are far from Prin’s only obstacles in getting the park running. In neighboring Illinois, a Black teenager named Garyon Jackson is murdered by an off-duty Chicago police officer. As chance (or 14th-century poetry) would have it, the park’s main attraction, a rollercoaster inspired by Dante’s “monster with an innocent face” (also called “the embodiment of deceit”) is named Geryon. When employees clash with the owners on how to handle the situation, things escalate at an alarming rate and soon the park’s ride is making news across state lines. As the events in Chicago begin to collide with the project in Terre Haute, Boyagoda shows how the political is always personal and the personal is always spiritual. The last ninety pages of the novel move at break-neck speed, and, like the news cycle, are a little difficult to keep up with. The effect is a bit dizzying, but maybe that’s the point—in an age where the internet connects us across oceans and time zones, no one exists in isolation and every occurrence is connected.

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