The Mayor’s Tongue

In Nathaniel Rich?s debut novel, a young man, an old man, and a man who, bolstered by his art and virility, might possibly be immortal, each tell stories. Their verbal play, it seems, is the thing, as by the end of the novel Rich has constructed nothing less than a creation myth that attempts to explain why people, throughout history, have been so enamored with telling stories in the first place. For any novelist, this would be an audacious feat; for a 27-year-old (even one who is a senior editor at the Paris Review), it could smack of hubris. The Mayor?s Tongue is a bit of both: the showy pyrotechnics of a writer reaching far beyond his grasp — and just about pulling it off.

The young man is Eugene Brentani, estranged from his father for reasons that remain unclear. After college, Eugene tells his father he has moved to Florida. Instead, he is working as a moving man up in Manhattan’s predominantly Dominican neighborhood of Inwood — separated from his childhood home on Manhattan?s exclusive Sutton Place by a $2 subway fare and a vast chasm of privilege — where he fancies himself “a refugee, or at least some sort of psychic immigrant.”

The psychic immigrant Eugene takes up with an actual immigrant, Alvaro, who initiates him into exotic tastes for menudo (tripe soup) and erotic deception — the two men share an apartment that Alvaro uses for extracurricular trysts with nurses and secretaries away from the prying eyes of his wife and children. They become such chums that Alvaro, who writes in his off hours from the moving company, asks Eugene to translate his work into English — despite the fact that Alvaro speaks a Spanish dialect called Cibae?o that even other Spanish-speakers find incomprehensible. Much to his surprise, Eugene, who speaks English and Italian, finds that the story — which he imagines to be about a young man named Jacinto, who leaves his home village to pursue his love, Alsa, in a far-away city — is entirely clear. He marvels: “It was a rare and mysterious thing when people could understand each other with such perfect clarity.”

Meanwhile, downtown, two old guys are sharing a park bench. Mr. Schmitz and Mr. Rutherford have every reason to understand each other with perfect clarity, having met in their youth as soldiers in Europe and continued a daily friendship right up into their old age. Mr. Schmitz has an ailing wife, Agnes, whom he loves dearly, though his affection for her is most palpable when, as they sleep together, he comforts her with his silence. Rutherford, however, is his daytime companion; the two men share friendship and stories over their daily walks and smokes (the latter a habit that Agnes doesn?t even know he still maintains). Then Rutherford changes the deal: Having been fired from his 30-year gig as a food columnist and replaced by a young chef with her own television show, he announces he will return to Italy, the site of many youthful indiscretions for both men. Mr. Schmitz is devastated, but Rutherford, tellingly enough in a story about storytelling, promises to write: “All the new cities. Every city a story. Just think how much I?ll have to tell you.”

Italy, as it turns out, has a part to play in Eugene?s story as well. Apparently, it is the last place where his favorite author, Constance Eakins, was spotted before he disappeared 30 years before. Despite the gender-ambiguity of his name, Eakins is a man of “Churchillian brio” and “Falstaffian appetites” — with, we might add, not a small dose of Hemingway machismo and Salinger elusiveness. According to his obituary (printed on the 30th anniversary of his disappearance — in the absence of a body he has been declared legally dead), Eakins “has stood accused, by critics and occasionally in a court of law, of excessive prodigality, brutalism, graft, whoremongering, lechery, thievery, murder, and even cannibalism (though these last two claims have been largely discredited).” He was also the subject of Eugene?s college thesis.

Thanks to a moving job, Eugene is lured into a book-lined Manhattan library that happens to belong to Abe Chisholm, the foremost American Eakins scholar as well as a close personal friend to the author. Even more fortuitously, the scholar has a fetching gray-eyed, redheaded daughter whom he calls Alison. She, however, tells the smitten Eugene to call her Sonia. Later in the novel, she will go by Alice, Alicia, and Agata; a new name for each man who loves her, and the surest sign we are dealing with the classic Woman as Muse. Like Jacinto?s Alsa, Alison-Sonia disappears to a foreign country and soon enough, Eugene follows her to Trieste. Italy, of course.

Under the Mediterranean sun, Rich?s characters let loose with a regular Tower of Babel: Postcards fly back and forth; Eugene continues his “translations”; Eakins?s stories are discussed and occasionally transcribed for the reader; lovers and children and parents search for one another in narratives that compete, and often overlap, with each other. Each layer builds on the others to bring us to the climax, in a tiny mountain town ruled by an ego-mad dictator where all the strands come together in a clever, neatly packaged conclusion.

This novel succeeds on its own terms as a meticulously structured piece of literary architecture, albeit one whose blueprints may be found in the work of Calvino, Auster, Borges, Fowles, and Pynchon. While meta-fiction may not have the same shock of originality it once had, it seems to be as worthy a model for a young writer as character-driven tales of boys who want nothing more than to climb a masthead, or girls who seem to wish they lived in a Jane Austen novel. Oddly enough, Rich seems most compelling when writing about his old men. Eugene?s pursuit of a pretty girl may be quest-narrative 101, but his passages on Agnes and Mr. Schmitz are specific, touching, and wise. That access to emotional truth, coupled with Rich’s obvious technical gifts as a writer, offers the reader a reward of its own — and makes the prospect of a second novel one to be anticipated with pleasure.