This is an imaginative and unexpected novel that alternates between two storylines.
The Mayor's TonguePublisher: Penguin
Author: Nathaniel Rich
US publication date: 2009-04
This April is the one-year anniversary of debut novel The Mayor’s Tongue, which would make its author, Nathaniel Rich, 28-years-old. Rich’s age and his considerable connections—his father is a New York Times columnist, his mother works in publishing, he an editor at The Paris Review—tend to come up when people discuss his novel. To some, its publication suggests favoritism or nepotism or ageism or other ugly “isms”.
But none of that really matters if Rich can write—and he can. The Mayor’s Tongue is an imaginative and unexpected novel that alternates between two storylines. In one, we follow Eugene as he pursues his love interest Alison, who is also called Sonia, Alicia, Alice, and Agata. She in turn is in pursuit of the illusive writer Constance Eakins, a mysterious JD Salinger-like figure who has disappeared somewhere in Italy.
The other storyline follows WWII vets Mr. Schmitz and Mr. Rutherford, who, after many years of friendship in New York, are separated when Rutherford has to move to Italy. Communication breaks down as letters become postcards and English becomes Italian until at last there is silence between the two friends. Schmitz must go to Italy to find out what happened.
At first, The Mayor’s Tongue seems like it will be a simple story about Eugene and his Dominican friend Alvaro, but as the book progresses, the story is continually interrupted by postcards, letters, plots of other novels, and shifts from present to past tense until you realize that the book itself is shifting landscape that is becoming increasingly surreal.
By the time Eugene gets to the Italian town of Treiste, the novel has entered the realm of fairytale and folklore. It’s a place full of cliffs, waterfalls, juniper trees, and bizarre characters, including Eakins, who is mayor over it all.
It is a relief to get to magic realism here, in part because it begins to explain the themes of communication that seem to haunt this novel. The Mayor’s Tongue is preoccupied with communication and all its implications on relationships. The continual failure of language traps and controls the characters, turning them into metaphors and slowly deconstructing their humanity.
Friends who can’t speak the same language still communicate with each other—or do they? Stories written by one person’s turn out to be a re-telling of someone else’s story. The artist gets lost in the vision of his own creations, unaware or uncaring that the creative process is turning him into something disconnected and grotesque.
This is a lot for any writer to take on, and at times Rich seems overwhelmed by all the subplots, allusions, and wordplay. The questions he’s raising need more examination than he gives them. As it is, they tend to get lost in the jumble of novel’s narrative.
Such a symbolic build-up demands a satisfying resolution and Rich does give The Mayor’s Tongue an ending that is faithful to the spirit of the story. It is almost good enough to make you forget all the dangling threads he’s leaving behind. Almost.
Overall, though, The Mayor’s Tongue is an ambitious and mostly successful first novel. There’s no doubt that Rich is a talented fiction writer, even if he hasn’t completely matured yet.