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Book Review: The Mayor’s Tongue by Nathaniel Rich

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Nathaniel Rich took five years to write The Mayor's Tongue, and in that time, the erstwhile editor of The Paris Review spoke not a word about it.  Fearful, as he says, that all his "notes and jottings might not add up to a finished novel", there were times when Rich "seriously doubted the sanity, let alone the merits, of what [he] was writing".  All of which seems symptomatic of the very problems that plague the central characters of his ultimately assured debut: self-consciousness, nervousness – an inability to communicate in the face of a desperate need to do so.  But the author need not have worried.  The Mayor's Tongue is a spare masterpiece of postmodernism, an incisive fable whose myriad threads of plot and thought take the inhibitions of our era to task and make Rich's first novel a New York Trilogy for the new millennium.

Two New Yorkers are at the heart of his story; gentle, unsuspecting creatures each of them, drowned out by the hubbub of America's great cultural melting-pot.  Eugene Brentani is a moving man at the outset, himself recently moved out of his Italian father's apartment and now flat-sharing with Alvaro, an enigmatic member of his crew who speaks an obscure dialect that Eugene, despite his persistent efforts, does not quite understand.  Their dialogues are certainly significant to the larger themes that The Mayor's Tongue addresses, but they also represent the first sparking of the rich humour which illuminates and alleviates the novel’s more academic concerns.

"You like menudo, huh?  You'd never guess what's in it."

"Alvaro, I have to tell you about this girl at the new job, Abe's daughter.  Grey eyes, long reddish-brown hair, beautiful skin, a wide smile–"

"Intestines.  Feet.  Gut-juice.  Dried pork skin."

"You said it – she's stunning.”

Eugene's narrative begins to bear fruit when he crosses paths with Abe Chisholm, an idiosyncratic old man hell-bent on writing an epic memoir of prolific novelist Constance Easkins.  His own obsession with Eakins means that Eugene jumps at the chance of assisting Abe in his research, but their efforts are tested when the writer — who vanished thirty years ago and has not since been seen — is officially declared dead.  Abe's daughter Alice soon reveals to Eugene that she has been forging the letters her father believes he receives from Eakins, and the two form a powerful bond that sustains Eugene throughout his journey.  He ups sticks and travels to Trieste, a distant area of Italy where Alice has gone to settle the Eakins dispute once and for all; and when he arrives, he is drawn to the Carso, a countryside hideaway where Alice appears to have been lured.  His trip is fraught with episodic little encounters with locals who share with Eugene a common destination, and on the long hike up hills and through valleys and under caverns, he begins to translate the manuscript Alvaro gave him before his departure.

Mr. Schmitz, meanwhile, is slowly losing touch with the world around him, or more precisely, the two people through which he experiences the world: his wife, who grows ever more distant, and Rutherford, an energetic old war-buddy whose unending charisma belies the grim reality of his age.  Although Schmitz too makes the momentous trip to Trieste and beyond, his considered narrative is a rather more sobering affair than Eugene's headlong voyage; always touching and at times utterly heartbreaking, Schmitz's gradual descent into himself makes for a fine counterpoint, and as the filters which define his existence crumble away, the brilliantly realised environments around him come into focus.

Rich handles both narratives with a deft touch — his prose a poem and his characters fully-fledged from almost the moment of conception — but resists the usual means of drawing such stories together.  The respective paths of the characters, who alternate chapters throughout, do not cross; and they need not.  In itself, their lack of connection is symbolic: in New York, Eugene and Schmitz are stranded without language, wordless and powerless.  Without such roots to anchor themselves to the earth, to sustain them, their growth is stunted, and in the Carso, where Eakins is said to live still, they rediscover what it means to communicate; the very language that isolated them comes to bring them together.  Alvaro's manuscript allows Eugene to express himself at last, and Schmitz has a uncharacteristically quiet Rutherford to coax back to the land of their shared youth.

In the titular Mayor, the empowering potential of language is given form.  The Mayor is a storyteller become a story whose creations haunt an ethereal village in the heart of the Trieste countryside.  The novel's central conceit is seductive, if perhaps a little too well signposted; its explication, in the end, is not so unexpected, but Rich renders the road there one well worth travelling.  And although the first few fits and starts of The Mayor's Tongue are amusing enough to demand your attention, their concerns prove to be somewhat inconsequential.  Nevertheless, the author finds his purpose soon enough, and when Eugene and Schmitz are whisked away from New York, the narrative and its pace swell in anticipation of a finale that proves as satisfying as the very best of what has gone before.  The postmodern leanings of the novel will discourage some readers, and widespread recognition may prove rather elusive for its gifted young author, but at the least, The Mayor's Tongue has cult classic written all over it.  The thing of it is: Rich's brilliant debut deserves better.

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  • Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Nice work!