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Speaking in Tongues

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, April 25, 2008

THE MAYOR'S TONGUE

By Nathaniel Rich

Riverhead. 310 pp. $24.95

"The Mayor's Tongue" is a goofy, playful, highly intellectual novel about serious subjects -- the failure of language, for one, and how we cope with that failure in order to keep ourselves sane. It's speculative fiction as well, and owes considerable literary debts to Luigi Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author," James Hilton's "Lost Horizon" and "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," in ways I can't mention without giving away the plot.

The novel consists of vaguely parallel narratives: Two men -- strangers to each other, one young, one old -- start out from New York on separate quests and end up in the Carso, a remote, mountainous region north of the city of Trieste (where, according to accompanying publicity copy, Rich once attended an international conference on Esperanto). Trieste, remember, is that seacoast city perched on the border between Italy and part of what used to be Yugoslavia, now Slovenia.

The men are very different. Mr. Schmitz, who has lived for years in New York City with his wife, Agnes, spends long, aimless days of retirement in Central Park with his World War II buddy Rutherford. Schmitz is old, as seen through the eyes of the very young. He's defined primarily by physically repellent details: a gob of phlegm "that resembles loose egg whites," a noodle sucked in, then out, then back into his nose. His marriage to Agnes, except for a few hours in the middle of the night, is paralyzingly dull, his friendship with Rutherford exceedingly placid. Things have stopped happening to Schmitz. Then, Rutherford unexpectedly goes to Milan and Agnes dies. Jolted by these two events, Schmitz walks directly from his wife's funeral to the nearest airport and flies to Italy to find his friend.

The second guy, far more complex and engaging, is young Eugene, still in his 20s, who has estranged himself from his Italian-speaking father. Eugene tells his dad that he's going to Florida, but chooses to remain in Manhattan, where he gets a job moving furniture. He befriends a young man from the Dominican Republic named Alvaro who speaks a dialect no one can understand. Eugene and Alvaro come to an unspoken agreement. They decide to understand each other, and after that they communicate (somehow) in italics. Alvaro is working on a manuscript, which Eugene begins to translate. Again, he can't understand a word, but he intuits the meaning -- he thinks. Other main characters include Constance Eakins, a 20th-century American literary giant, his biographer and that biographer's fetching daughter, who is named, variously, Alison, Sonia, Alice, Alicia and Agata.

Nathaniel Rich hadn't yet hit 30 -- if I read correctly -- when he wrote this book. He's young, young, young, and words and ideas seem to just pitch him over sideways laughing. He makes ruthless fun of the he-man things American male novelists are supposed to do and be: Eakins has "swum the breaststroke in every continent (even Antarctica), mastered nine languages (including three dead ones), received a war medal" and collected innumerable girlfriends, including a "mute, hirsute Inuit," and you can taste Rich's glee at the idea of that Inuit. (In the parallel Schmitz story, Rutherford took the time to find "an albino woman and ran off with her on a six-month tour of Scandinavian spas.") Does either the Inuit or the albino further this story in any way? No. Rich just likes them and wants them in these pages.

Again, the novel is about the limits (and the wonderful uses) of language. Eugene can't understand the young man from the Dominican Republic but thinks he can. Rutherford forgets his English when he reaches Italy and can speak only Italian; a mysterious red mark in the shape of a tongue begins to grow on his cheek. By the time Schmitz catches up with him, Rutherford has had some kind of seizure and no longer speaks at all. But Schmitz is convinced they can still communicate and attempts to comfort his friend with tales of San Francisco and Manhattan, just as Rutherford had earlier calmed him with tales of Ferrara and Perugia.

Stories may be stronger than our everyday reality and the characters in them more meaningful than their pale counterparts in everyday life. Does Eugene really love Alison/Sonia/Agata, or is she just a fever dream to hang his random passions on? Do the heroes and villains we dream up live more strongly in our lives than someone like Schmitz's drab and all-too-real wife? The author votes for the power of art, and when a group of characters shows up, asking Eugene "What's your story?" they mean exactly that.

"The Mayor's Tongue" is uneven, mostly because Nathaniel Rich knows a great deal about being young, but he hasn't the foggiest idea of old age. But the reader puts up with Schmitz, in order to spend time with Eugene -- to lollygag, to gambol, to play.

Sunday in Book World

· Louise Erdrich's sweeping "The Plague of Doves."

· Martin Amis's ferocious "The Second Plane."

· J. Peter Scoblic's sharp "U.S. vs. THEM."

· Joanne Harris's tasty sequel to "Chocolat."

· And remembering a time when workers prospered.

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