cover image Divine Comedy

Divine Comedy

Gregory Blake Smith. Simon & Schuster, $20 (272pp) ISBN 978-0-671-78854-4

Subtle this novel is not. As his title makes clear, Smith ( The Devil in the Dooryard ) doesn't hesitate to invoke the immortals, deploying them for a crude send-up of the schizoid American sexuality typified by the so-called madonna/whore syndrome. John Venner, a divinity professor nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita , lusts after a beautiful young woman raised by Shakers and known as Sister Sabbathday, while his ex-wife, a gifted theologian named Sally, dubs herself Medusa and forms a flamboyant rock trio called the Gorgons. Obviously, one turns out to be pure and one corrupt. Unduly impressed with his own wit, Smith underestimates the reader's. For example, he has Venner serve spaghetti alla puttanesca to aged Shakers, then kills the joke with excessive explanation: ``It appears by the gaga look on Sister Chastity's face that Spaghetti the Way the Whores Make It has not heretofore been a regular item on the . . . menu.'' In case the significance of the protagonist's name escapes the reader, Smith creates an adjectival form for it: Vennereal. And there should be a special circle somewhere in Dante's underworld for anyone with literary pretensions who writes a sentence as clumsy as this: ``She crosses to the corner of where the BB gun I use to shoot at the Body-Rite Fitness Club out my window is leaning against the wall.'' (Sept.)