Review: The Mayor’s Tongue

Brooklyn’s latest star in literary firmament


By Frances Shaw, April 30, 2009
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By Nathaniel Rich
Chatto & Windus £11.99

There must be something in the water in Brooklyn. The past decade has spewed forth a particularly strong generation of creative, original, Jewish writers in and around New York — from Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, to Nell Freudenberger and Keith Gessen. Many have seams of fantasy or magical realism running through their prose; and the first novel published by Nathaniel Rich, one of the editors of the fabulous Paris Review, is no exception.

Recently graduated Eugene Brentani takes a job as a removal man, through which he meets Alison and her father Abe Chisolm, biographer to the mysterious writer Constance Eakins (on whom Eugene wrote his thesis). Eakins has long been presumed dead, so Eugene is surprised, to say the least, when it transpires that Chisolm is still in correspondence with him. Meanwhile, Eugene is helping to translate his friend Alvaro’s writing in rare Dominican dialect into English. That he doesn’t actually speak said dialect is no barrier: “He was amazed. It was a rare and mysterious thing when two people could understand each other with such perfect clarity.”

Alison, with whom Eugene has fallen in love (and who insists on being addressed as Sonia, though this is by no means the most peculiar aspect of the book), sets off to find Eakins in Italy and Eugene follows; a nip across the ocean from America to Europe; from relatively realistic tales to a topsy-turvy fairyland. Rich is smart to ease us in gently, as the sheer exuberance and mounting craziness of the final third would be utterly alienating without it.

In a parallel tale, elderly New Yorker Mr Schmitz is about to lose his wife, and about to lose his friend Rutherford too — although to Italy, rather than death. Their communication after Rutherford’s departure becomes less and less satisfactory, until Mr Schmitz sets off to follow him.

Miscommunication is at the heart of this wildly ambitious novel — we all just want to be understood, whether in speech or on paper, and even in the most straightforward of circumstances it seems impossible.

The novel eventually becomes a little too convoluted and the ending lets down what has been a breathless, hysterical climaxing until then, but Rich is manifestly talented and will certainly go on to great success, and so it is worth reading (and skipping where necessary) to be able to say you were there at the beginning.

Frances Shaw is a freelance journalist

    Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011