The Mayor’s Tongue
Riverhead: 310 pp., $24.95
In “Morphology of the Folktale,” the Russian scholar Vladimir Propp wrote that not all fairy tale plots begin in response to an act of villainy; sometimes a hero is spurred to action when faced with an “inefficiency or lack.” In Nathaniel Rich’s imaginatively folkloric first novel, “The Mayor’s Tongue,” that “lack” is the problem of language, and the two protagonists must travel great distances to resolve it.
Eugene Brentani, recently graduated from college, lives in the Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood and works as a mover. His roommate and best friend, from the Dominican Republic, speaks a rare northern dialect few understand but Eugene grasps by instinct and a knowledge of Italian. In the midst of translating his roommate’s mysterious manuscript into English, Eugene is hired by the biographer of his favorite writer, the elusive buccaneer expatriate Constance Eakins, to organize his Eakinsiana.
Eugene falls for the biographer’s daughter, the lovely auburn-haired Alison, while he is saying her name (“He realized as soon as it crossed his lips that he was surprised to hear the word spoken aloud, in his own voice”). But Alison -- or Sonia, as she asks Eugene to call her -- disappears to Italy in search of Eakins, and Eugene knows he must follow, to find both the woman he loves and the author who has so influenced him.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Manhattan, the elderly Mr. Schmitz must cope with the departure of his lifelong friend and World War II buddy, Rutherford. The two were inseparable for decades, but Rutherford’s magazine (Food and Pleasure) has abruptly transplanted him to Milan. Rutherford sends letters, then simply postcards, and each subsequent missive shows him to be deteriorating, linguistically, physically and psychologically. After Mr. Schmitz’s wife dies, he undertakes his own pilgrimage to Italy, hoping to reunite with his friend and save his life.
The novel alternates neatly between the two protagonists’ story lines, but the dual narrative structure is more complex than it first appears. The book is pervaded by narrative devices: letters, newspaper articles, Post-it notes, summaries of various novels and short stories. This technique may seem distracting initially, but the reason for Rich’s stylistic choice becomes evident as the themes of the book begin to emerge.
Neither Eugene nor Mr. Schmitz can bridge the communication gaps separating them from the people closest to them. Eugene lied to his Italian American father about relocating to Florida and then remained in New York City, hidden in plain sight and worrying about encountering the ailing Signor Brentani. Mr. Schmitz, stripped of the easy camaraderie with Rutherford and forced to rely on the inferior companionship of his wife, realizes that he withdrew his true self from her a long time ago.
It is the stories these people tell themselves and one another that stand in for meaningful human relationships. The characters become receptacles for stories (Mr. Schmitz and Rutherford, for example, share a nightly phone ritual in which the latter weaves a kind of bedtime tale), but at a steep price. Could solitude possibly be the more authentic life experience? “Every time you reveal a secret to someone,” Eugene is told toward the novel’s end, “part of you dies. One knows oneself by one’s secrets. If you reveal everything, you’re empty -- just a collection of facts in other people’s minds.”
As the novel’s intricacies unfurl, we are plunged into surreal territory. Rural Italy transforms into a lush Heart of Darkness, filled with rustling groves and waterfalls, juniper bushes, grotesque outcasts and the larger-than-life Mayor who rules over them all. The deeper Eugene wades into the forest in search of Sonia, the more untethered we become, encouraged to engage in a metaphoric reading and rereading of the characters and plot. Is Rutherford there mainly to define the shape of Mr. Schmitz’s life? Is the role of the beautiful Sonia limited to what Propp called the dramatis persona of “princess” -- someone whose only function is to be sought after? Is intimacy an act of self-delusion -- or worse, self-aggrandizement? (More prosaically, why is Sonia called by at least three other names -- Alison, Agata and Alice?)
The answers to those questions are far from simple, given Rich’s ambitiously layered -- at times overly so -- plot and playful motifs. If he has not entirely managed to clarify the numerous preoccupations that inform his book, the experience of sharing in its feverish tussling with ideas is consistently exuberant. “The Mayor’s Tongue” will resonate with readers who sometimes feel more substantial inside the labyrinth of imagination than in any “real world” encounters. In one of the novel’s many poignant depictions of failed attempts at connection, Rutherford writes from Italy to his dear friend: “I cannot liberate my malady of the head. And that, I say, is the humor of it.” *
Irina Reyn’s first novel, “What Happened to Anna K.,” will be published in August.