Boys to Men
A DEAD LANGUAGE
By Peter Rushforth
MacAdam/Cage. 647 pp. $26
"To die in an instant, without premonition, among close friends, walking through wonderful countryside towards a fine lunch, is probably as good an end as anyone could hope for."
So wrote Colin Rendall in the Guardian obituary for his friend the novelist Peter Rushforth, who died last year at the age of 60 after suffering a heart attack while hiking on the Yorkshire moors. What made Rushforth's death especially poignant was that his literary career had so recently reawakened. His award-winning first novel, Kindergarten, appeared in 1979, a tale of the Holocaust and contemporary terrorism infused with the dark energy of Grimms' fairy tales, "Hansel and Gretel" in particular.
But then he seemed to fall silent for 25 years till the publication of his second novel, in 2004, the overstuffed and unabashedly bibliophilic Pinkerton's Sister. That capacious book brought Rushforth wide acclaim and was the start of one of the more ambitious literary undertakings of recent years: a quintet called "A Malady of Thought." The projected sequence involves the family of Lt. Benjamin Pinkerton, the feckless seducer of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." The first two books, Pinkerton's Sister and now A Dead Language, immerse readers in this spectacularly dysfunctional clan through an idiosyncratic, stream-of-consciousness narrative as affecting as it is sometimes unwieldy.
Pinkerton's Sister presented a single day in the life of Alice Pinkerton, a self-proclaimed madwoman in the attic of her affluent family home. Rushforth's new novel focuses on the childhood and adolescence of Alice's brother, Ben. A brief prologue cues the reader to Ben's later life as the man who impregnated and then abandoned his young Japanese bride in Nagasaki. From there, the story flashes back and forth across Ben's schoolboy experiences in the fictional New York town of Hudson Heights, from the late 1880s until 1894, when he's 16.
The dead language of the title is Latin, lingua franca of "The Bearded Ones," Alice Pinkerton's terse nickname for the men in her father's circle. Pinkerton senior is one of the most monstrous characters in recent literature, a man who "experienced the delirium of godlike power" primarily through goading his son.
In the world of The Bearded Ones, Ben has the great misfortune to be physically delicate. He's also very musical and blushes easily, attributes that encourage his father to torment him without mercy. "For a time he had expected his father's large hairy-backed hand to grasp him around the mouth and pinch his nose (it would cover almost the whole of his face), to stop him from breathing, to make him faint again, just so that he could laugh at him."
A Dead Language invokes boys' stories -- Tom Brown's School Days, Nicholas Nickleby, Penrod-- as signposts for Ben's harrowing journey to manhood. Much of the novel takes place during Latin lessons, taught at different schools by two men who embody wildly different forms of masculinity. Dr. Crowninshield's one-class schoolhouse favors an open, humorous take on the classics, heavy on Shakespeare and real-world application of knowledge, light on punishment and arithmetic. Dr. Crowninshield is helpless with numbers; he is also a fraud.