“In a great comedy, we are always made aware of the darkness in life, but the ending must be happy or it’s not a comedy. A man’s journey to wholeness is therefore most rightly named ‘The Comedy,’ for the end is the final awareness of that love which is the joy of the universe.” – Helen M. Luke in “Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’”
Philip Lee Williams’ magnificent “The Divine Comics: a Vaudeville Show in Three Acts” begins and ends with Whitman Bentley, a young man with gangly legs who’s been dreaming again, perhaps to escape the fact that among the eccentrics at The School of Music, he “may be the weakest, torn with every phobia in the catalogue.”
Since the novel’s back-cover informs readers that Williams’ novel reimagines and updates Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” we know going in that Whitman Bentley will, to put it crudely, go to hell and back, after—as Dante might put it—the eccentric second-string symphony conductor awakes to find himself in a dark wood where the right road is wholly lost and gone.
En route to the ending of “The Divine Comics,” (which is pure poetry and white rose wonderment) the reader—as well as Williams’ huge cast of dysfunctional characters—may sense that that there is no right road and that the trickster gods (known as the Divine Comics, aka “The Lords of the Inner Kingdom”) are plagued with every manner of dark joke in the catalogue. Ah, but the chapters in “The Divine Comics” are called skits for a reason.
The novel’s three sections, “Fire,” “Earth” and “Air,” match Dante’s “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” and “Paradiso.” “Fire” focuses on a school of music, “Earth” on the followers of a lady who takes her friends on a cruise to France where they will be well paid to treat her as their queen, and “Air” on a mixed group of artists, politicians and scientists who have been assembled as honored fellows at a rich man’s Rocky Mountain retreat.
Each troop of trekkers has its own farcical road of trials, puns, groaners, riffs, improvisations on every imaginable subject under heaven, and assorted terrors to follow, complete with a guide, until all the skits merge into one with the novel’s almost-overpowering crescendo of an ending. Like “The Divine Comedy,” Williams’ “The Divine Comics” has four levels of meaning: literal, allegorical, moral and mystical. While the novel has great depth and a near-infinite number of overt and covert references to music, popular culture, history and religion, it is a very readable and entertaining story.
At this point in the review, Dante purists may be wondering if any of the groups in the story is guided by Virgil. No, but there’s a good reason for that. Former used car salesman Al Carswell, who hosts Whitman Bentley’s group in the vestibule of hell, says that “the Big V” isn’t around much. “Last people he brought through was a bunch of Jaycees who died of ptomaine in Butte, Montana. After that, he turned sort of sour on things, don’t you know?”
Williams has done one hell of a job updating hell, purgatory and paradise for today’s savvy seekers of a great story and/or the white rose. Observers—such as the readers of this novel—left standing in the dark wood for eternity will sooner or later shout, as James Joyce might put it, “Here Comes Everybody,” for Dante’s epic poem and Williams’ update some 690 years later are both masterpieces describing the human condition. This is not to say everybody must use “The Divine Comics” as a personal heaven and hell travel guide. After all, how will we know at any moment whether we’re in or out of Whitman Bentley’s dream? As Williams says many times in the novel as an author commenting on the story he’s telling, “It’s a question well worth our attention.”
“The Divine Comics” is, indeed a comedy. But rest assured that before you reach that happy ending, The Lords of the Inner Kingdom, will capture your attention and then leave you breathlessly rolling in the aisles at a Vaudeville show filled with enough black humor to last a lifetime, and then some.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of four novels, including the satire “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire”