Nathaniel Rich’s debut novel, The Mayor’s Tongue, is an ambitious work about the power of language in all its many forms — spoken, written, and nonverbal — and its ability to define and transform us as people. Concurrent plots about a young man, Eugene Brentani, and an older man, Mr. Schmitz, interweave both fantasy and fictional memoir, as the men gain new insights about themselves, about the world around them, and about the relationships that have had the greatest impact upon their lives.
Eugene is a native New Yorker whose primary relationships include his emotionally distanced Italian father, a co-worker who speaks a rare dialect that Eugene does not understand, a literary giant of a writer idolized by Eugene, and a woman he meets briefly yet who becomes a focal point for his journey to Italy. The defining relationships for Mr. Schmitz include his ailing wife, Agnes, and his best friend, Rutherford, who has served as a touchstone for most of Mr. Schmitz’s life.
The story meanders between locations, between two unique plots and main characters, and between past and present tense, but it seems to intentionally parallel the circuitous experiences of both main characters. Though their paths never directly intertwine, both men travel from Manhattan to the remote countryside of northern Italy along their separate but similar journeys, and the distinctions between reality and fantasy become blurred along the way.
The most impressive aspect of The Mayor’s Tongue is the exquisite quality of Rich’s writing. His well-chosen words are fresh and raw, creating vivid images for the reader, yet still subtle enough to allow the reader to form his or her own conclusions and emotional interpretations about the story and the lives of the characters.
Here is a sample of a scene from the life of Mr. Schmitz:
“Agnes never explains what causes these crying jags, nor does Mr. Schmitz ask. To do so would be a breach of intimacy. He knows that if he inquired, Agnes would turn away; she might leave the room altogether and go write something down in the private journal that she hid from him. It is clear that she does not want to speak with him about her nighttime terrors. She allows him to witness her suffering, and to comfort her with his mittens, in exchange for his silence. And so despite the absence of spoken communication, this is when he feels closest to her.”
The process of writing itself is a recurring theme. Constance Eakins is a fictional author whose work and existence have become legendary to several of the characters in the book. Eugene is working to ‘interpret’ a manuscript for his friend Alvaro, though they do not speak the same language. He is also assisting an author who is writing a biography of Eakins. Mrs. Schmitz records her innermost thoughts in a personal journal that her husband has never read, and finally, Mr. Schmitz himself toys with the idea of writing his memoirs as he reflects upon his past.
Although this is Nathaniel Rich’s first novel, he is no stranger to literary pursuits. He is an editor for the Paris Review and is an experienced critic himself. In addition, he comes from a family of writers. His father is Frank Rich, and his brother is Simon Rich.