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Dead Languages

Dead Languages

5.0 2
by Shields

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In Dead Languages by David Shields, Jeremy Zorn's mother tries unsuccessfully to coax him into saying "Philadelphia," and his life becomes framed by his unwieldy attempts at articulation. Through family rituals with his word-obsessed parents and sister, failed first love, an ill-fated run for class president, as the only Jewish boy on an otherwise all-black


In Dead Languages by David Shields, Jeremy Zorn's mother tries unsuccessfully to coax him into saying "Philadelphia," and his life becomes framed by his unwieldy attempts at articulation. Through family rituals with his word-obsessed parents and sister, failed first love, an ill-fated run for class president, as the only Jewish boy on an otherwise all-black basketball team, all of the passages of Jeremy's life are marked in some way by his stutter and his wildly off-the-mark attempts at a cure. It is only when he enters college and learns his strong-willed mother is dying that he realizes all languages, when used as hiding places for the heart, are dead ones.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Shields is a talented writer, and in Dead Languages he explores fertile themes with intelligence and verbal energy.” —the New York Times

“As touching and funny a rendering of adolescence as The Catcher in the Rye. . . . Dead Languages speaks to everyone who has ever struggled to articulate an emotion and failed to find the words.” —Library Journal

“An astonishing and mordantly witty tour de force. David Shields, a virtuoso of the written word, manages to make the halting, self-conscious agonies of his stuttering hero into a metaphor for all our disjointed, doomed attempts at self-definition through connection. He has transcended his subject and written a book that will touch everyone who has suffered over the inadequacies of speech to sustain life and love.” —Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The story of a boy who stutters, at war with, yet entranced by, language, Shields's ( Heroes ) second novel is a bitingly funny cry from the heart and a mordant paean to the power of words. ``Sometimes my childhood seems . . . an endless series of . . . overwrought attempts to get beyond a voice that bothered me,'' reflects Jeremy Zorn, victim of a speech defect that becomes his life's animating principle. Snared by sibilants, reduced to social helplessness, like a modern-day Demosthenes he resolves to use language to ``rearrange the world.'' His handicap comes to seem emblematic of obstacles to communication in general, and helpful in dramatizing them: ``I thought it was my duty to insert into every conversation the image of its own absurdity,'' Jeremy contends, and his coming-of-age requires a comprehensive survey of the available means of verbal rebellion. They include ghetto slang; sign language; singing in the school chorus; debating; and Latin (which ``existed only on the page. . . . was always silent''). However, Jeremy's fitting, final choice of existential weapon is fiction. Shields flexes substantial intellectual muscle, yet powerfully sympathetic portraits of Jeremy, his family and their friends also account for the novel's vitality; all and sundry invite effervescently sarcastic comment from the stutterer. The frustration bred by his ``neurasthenic self-consciousness'' commands Jeremy to let off steam of a high order of hilarity, while driving him to search for his place in the world with uncommon, compelling ferocity. (Apr . )
Library Journal
From Billy Budd to Billy Bibbitt, characters tormented by stuttering and thus prevented from expressing their most passionate feelings have played a central role in American literature. But Jeremy Zorn is the first such character to narrate his own story. For Zorn, stuttering is a barrier that must--at all costs--be breached or circumvented. But his is much more than the story of a young man's struggles to overcome a frailty of nature. It is finally an insightful examination of the struggles of children and parents to articulate their love for one another. The result is as touching and funny a rendering of adolescence as The Catcher in the Rye . Those recently emerged from adolescence will readily see its truth; the well read will delight at Shields's ability with narrative. But Dead Languages speaks to everyone who has ever struggled to articulate an emotion and failed to find the words.-- Frank Pisano, Pennsylvania State Univ., University Park

Product Details

Graywolf Press
Publication date:
Graywolf Rediscovery Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.42(w) x 8.56(h) x 0.73(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 11

They were all sitting in flame red chairs in the garage of a boy named Bill. They all had names such as Jack or Bill, Jim, Art, Steve, Mark, Ron, Lee, Hank. Sometimes I think they selected me as their scapegoat because my first name had more than one syllable. The chairs were arranged in a neat circle, and the telephone sat in the center of the circle like some immense insect they were trying to tame. They were all drinking cans of Coors and smoking Camels. I visualized Beth and Mother sitting in the den, eating popcorn, drinking pink lemonade, creating word combinations, and I yearned to be with them, but Jack handed me a beer, Art placed a cigarette in my mouth, Jim pulled up a chair for me, and I had to stay. I didn't like the taste of beer and I was incapable of either lighting a match or inhaling smoke, so I put down the aluminum can and the cigarette and ate M&M's, which were consumed in great quantity by the gang so that Bill's parents-who couldn't have cared less or known more-would smell sweet chocolate rather than bitter malt or black tobacco.

These abstentions, of course, did little to endear me to the denizens of Bill's garage, but I sat back in my flame red chair and watched them dial. They'd request that a large pizza be delivered to the house across the street, then half an hour later rush to the garage window and laugh at the next-door neighbor's rebuff of the poor pizza man. They'd ask beautiful little girls: if your Uncle Jack was on the roof, would you help your Uncle Jack off? They'd tell lonely old women: I'm from the Electric Light Company-would you please look outside and tell me if your street lamp is on? It is? Well, would please turnit off? You're wasting electricity.

This was a droll enough way to spend a Friday evening and I was starting to enjoy a little the blind dialing, the passing of the phone, the random cruelty of the calls, but then it was my turn. The telephone was placed in my lap and I said, "No, I just came to watch. I told Bill that when he called. I'm not calling."

I stood up to depart, but they blocked the door.

"Oh, yes you are," Jack said.

"Come on, Jerry, be a sport," Art said.

"Yeah, Jer, don't puss-out on us," Jim said.

"You can't watch and then not call," Hank said.

Perhaps Hank was right. It was unfair to watch the wickedness without doing the deed-in that way, not unlike a night I spent recently on Santa Monica Boulevard watching naked girls dance on dimly lit stages, but running in terror when approached by a coolly attractive and surprisingly inexpensive prostitute-so I returned to my chair, held the phone in my hands, and asked, "Who do I call? What do I say?"

"You call who you want," Steve said. "And you say what you want, but it's got to be nasty."

I tried to think of something nasty. At the time, there was a television program in San Francisco called "Dialing for Dollars," whose master of ceremonies interrupted a very old movie every five minutes to call one of our lucky viewers out there and ask (for progressively larger amounts of money until some spinster finally knew the answer): who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1956? Who is the only person to have been nominated five times for Best Actor and never won? Where was Gig Young born, and who was his leading lady in Last Train to New Orleans? What movie are we showing tonight? Is anyone, is there a single blessed soul, out there watching and, if so, why? To call someone, tell him it was Pat McCormick from "Dialing for Dollars," ask a perfectly simple question, and-no matter what our lucky viewer said-say I was sorry but that was not the answer we were looking for: wouldn't this be nasty enough? I thought it would, dialing.

"Yullo," an old man answered after a number of rings and burped. Immediately, I saw him: recumbent, in gray socks and white whiskers, on a prickly couch; overhead, dirty red drapes; at his feet, trustworthy schnauzer and trusted Scotch.

I was thirteen years old, my voice was very high and hesitant-obviously not that of the exceedingly smooth Pat McCormick-but all the boys were looking at me and listening. I said, "Good evening, sir, this is P-P-Pat McCormick on 'Dialing for Dollars,' Channel 2 Weekend Movie. We've just stopped at the climactic scene of Snowbirds in the Sahara to call and ask you a question worth twelve h-h-hundred dollars. That's right, twelve h-h-hundred d-d-dollars. We're looking for the name of a movie that's currently very popular and stars K-K-Katherine Ross, Paul Newman, and Robert Redford. It's called Butch Cassidy and the Blank Blank. We're looking for the blank blank, sir. Can you hazard a guess? It' worth twelve h-h-hundred d-d-dollars. The clock is ticking...."

I couldn't tell whether the boys were laughing at the brilliance of my hoax or the obvious schism between who I claimed to be and who I was.

The old man said: "I don't know the name of any goddamn Birch Calliope and the Blank Blank, but I damn well know you ain't Pat McCormick. I know the sound of that man's voice and you ain't it. You're a kid who's got a speech problem, isn't that right, kid? Well, whadja callin' here for?"

"N-n-not even a w-w-wild guess, sir? Ten seconds and counting...."

"Whadja doin', kid? Your speech counselor toldja to make telephone calls, impersonatin' public personalities or somethin'? Whadja doin'? You ain't 'Dialin' for Dollars' any more than I'm the 'Flyin' Nun.' But I can tell ya somethin', kid, you've got a mouthful of marbles. I never heard a kid talk so bad as that before. Callin' here like that, you otter be ashamed."

"F-f-five seconds. F-f-five, f-f-four...."

"I got a solution, though, for you, kid. Read about it in Reader's Digest. Last month, I think, maybe the month before. Listen good, now, here's what you do: stick a coupla wads of cotton in both your ears. That's right, just stick some cotton in your ears. You won't be able to hear yourself when you talk and it'll do wonders for you, kid. Really, you gotta try it."

Actually, I did try it several years later in the form on an electronic gizmo called the Edinburgh Masker, which was approximately as effective as the cotton cure.

"No, I'm sorry, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is not the answer we were l-l-looking for. Heh-heh. No, I'm s-s-sorry, that's wrong, sir. We'll just have to call another one of our lucky viewers. B-b-but as a consolation prize we're sending you a forty-five of Nancy S-S-Sinatra s-s-singing, on one s-s-side, 'These Boots Are Made for Walkin'' and, on the other, 'Love Is a Velvet Horn.' That's right, absolutely free. Bye, now. Yes, bye. Goodbye."

I returned the receiver to its cradle and tried to laugh a little with the guys-took a sip of Coors, a long drag on a Camel-but I was sweating profusely, my hands were shaking, and the boys understood what had happened. They were oddly commiserative, too. They clapped me on the back, told me it was a good prank, and Mark even picked up the phone to try the same stunt on someone else, but the old man was still on the line. That happens sometimes: one person hangs up, the other stays on, and the connection remains unbroken. All night long the old man reclined on his prickly couch, sipped his Scotch, and said, "Let me talk to the kid with marbles in his mouth. Yeah, Pat McCormick; put him back on." I had to listen until midnight to the details of the cotton cure.

Meet the Author

David Shields's other books are Remote, A Handbook for Drowning, and Heroes. His stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, Vogue, Details, the Village Voice, and Utne Reader. He lives in Seattle, where is a professor of English at the University of Washington.

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Dead Languages 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
David Shields' novel explores the meaning of language and its strong influence on the main character of the story, Jeremy Zorn. Vividly described scenes of Jeremy's childhood guide the reader through his struggle with language, both in his stuttering and in his writing. Jeremy desires to subdue words, to communicate through a form at times most elusive. In contrast, his mother tames words and people at will. It is this contrast that Jeremy seeks to overcome. Jeremy discovers that stuttering is not simply a lapse of language, but also an effect of his acute awareness of the words he attempts to utter. His speech therapist tells him: "If you're ever going to gain complete control of your communicative skills, you have to pay attention to each successive moment of utterance--now and now and now; in other words, the continuously moving present, not previous moments of poor performance and certainly not upcoming feared words." Thus language and life intertwine, each influencing the other. I highly recommend this novel to any audience.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Along with Exley's A Fan's Notes, this is one of the few books I continue to reread regularly. I've never seen adolescence, love, longing, and fear so accurately and perfectly depicted. As someone who grew up with a stutter--like the author--this book was and remains a lifeline in that it taught me I was not alone. Beautiful, tender and unforgettable.