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The Mayor's Tongue: A Novelby Nathaniel Rich
"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." Carolyn See, Washington Post Book World (read the entire Washington Post Book World review)
Synopses & Reviews
A stunningly original novel of literary obsession and imagination that is sure to be one of the most highly anticipated debuts of the year.
From a precociously talented young writer already widely admired in the literary world, The Mayor's Tongue is a bold, vertiginous debut novel that unfolds in two complementary narratives, one following a young man and the other an old man. The young man is Eugene Brentani, aflame with a passion for literature and language, and a devotee of the reclusive author and adventurer Constance Eakins, now living in Italy. The old man is Mr. Schmitz, whose wife is dying, and, confused and terrified, he longs to confide in his dear friend Rutherford. But Rutherford has disappeared, and his letters, postmarked from Italy, become more and more ominous as the weeks pass.
In separate but resonating story lines, both men's adventures take them from New York City to the mountainous borderlands of northern Italy, where the line between reality and imagination begins to blur and stories take on a life of their own. Here, we are immersed in Rich's vivid, enchanting world full of captivating characters — the despairing Enzo, who wanders looking for a nameless love; the tiny, doll-like guide, Lang; and the grotesque Eakins. Over this strange, spectral landscape looms the Mayor, a mythic and monstrous figure considered a "beautiful creator" by his townspeople, whose pull ultimately becomes irresistible.
From a young writer of exceptional promise, this refreshingly original novel is a meditation on the frustrations of love, the madness of mayors, the failings of language, and the transformative powers of storytelling.
"Two parallel missing person searches hurtle from New York to Italy in Paris Review editor Rich's surreal debut. Eugene Brentani, avoiding his lonely father and Sutton Place upbringing just after college, ends up in far Northern Manhattan working for Abraham Chisholm, the biographer of Connie Eakins — the author on whom Eugene wrote his college thesis. Abraham's lovely daughter, Sonia, goes missing in Italy while searching for the presumed-dead Eakins; Eugene, who met Sonia in New York and fell instantly in love with her, jumps at the opportunity to retrieve her. Once in Milan, Eugene finds danger lurking around every corner. Alternating chapters tell of elderly New York widower Mr. Schmitz (as he's called throughout), whose friend Rutherford has left for Italy, and whose letters from there are troubling. Mr. Schmitz sets off for Milan, partially to help Rutherford reclaim the Italy the two men knew as WWII soldiers. Rich seems as interested in exploring different forms of miscommunication as in developing character and plot, and the two central mysteries, both centering on books and story-telling, have a distinctly Borgesian flavor to them. Rich is an impressive stylist, but this debut's whole ends up less than the sum of its disparate parts, which a surprise ending fails to unify." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"'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... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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." Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can may be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"In this tale about the obsessive relationship between a writer and his voice, Nathaniel Rich finds his own." Men's Vogue
"Rich delivers a daring, wonderfully weird first novel. The book is divided into two narratives....The stories never cross explicitly, but an electricity arcs between them, inducing an effect as haunting as the reality-collapsing yarns of Paul Auster." Interview
"Nathaniel Rich's first novel is a coming-of-age story like Pinocchio in reverse: Instead of growing up to become a real boy, the hero of The Mayor's Tongue grows up to find out that he's not real at all. If you're a Pynchon or Fowles fan, it's a novel for you." San Francisco Chronicle
"Shockingly strong debut from gifted writer....Rich demonstrates an almost impish delight in confounding rather than elucidating, systematically disfiguring the barrier between fiction and reality....The novel's foremost delight is its measured, nearly imperceptible descent into the realm of fairy-tale." Paste Magazine
"Rich's strangely hypnotic novel, brimming with fantastical figures, gently pulls readers into its orbit." Booklist
"The novel's narratives play off each other, offering literary allusions to H.L. Mencken, Simone de Beauvoir and Yasunari Kawabata. A debut novel that will appeal most to punch-drunk bibliophiles." Kirkus Reviews
"I read The Mayor's Tongue with ever-increasing delight, rooting with all my heart for the young protagonist on his near-mythic quest. This is an elegantly-structured, brilliantly-told novel, by turns terrifying, touching, and wildly funny, and always generous and magical. The Mayor's Tongue is about how we talk to each other and how make-believe helps us get on with our lives; most of all, it's about love. Kudos to Nathaniel Rich, who has created a brave book, a novel brimming with brio." Stephen King
"Ambitious, intelligent, hallucinatory, and, most important: heartfelt. Here is a young writer who is not afraid to give literature a kick in the pants, a writer deep in the thrall of language." Gary Shteyngart
"The Mayor's Tongue reminds me of Peter Carey's early work — the highest possible praise. It presents a young writer of deep ambition and imagination working with a kind of unnerving maturity. It's clear from the very first pages that Nathaniel Rich can really write, and he proceeds to unfurl a fascinating mobius strip of a novel, its dual narratives swerving and twisting until they've come together in a way that seems all at once impossible and endlessly elegant." Colum McCann, author of Zoli and This Side of Brightness
One of the most original, dazzling, and critically acclaimed debut novels this year.
In this debut novel, hailed by Stephen King as ?terrifying, touching, and wildly funny,? the stories of two strangers, Eugene Brentani and Mr. Schmitz, interweave. What unfolds is a bold reinvention of storytelling in which Eugene, a devotee of the reclusive and monstrous author, Constance Eakins, and Mr. Schmitz, who has been receiving ominous letters from an old friend, embark from New York for Italy, where the line between imagination and reality begins to blur and stories take on a life of their own.
About the Author
Nathaniel Rich has published essays and criticism in The New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Nation, The New Republic, and Slate. He is an editor at The Paris Review.
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