- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2008

The title tells the tale in Nathaniel Rich’s debut novel, (Riverhead Books, $24.95, 310 pages). Part fable, part magical realism, with a touch of the grotesque, “The Mayor’s Tongue” is a delightful, literate novel about communication, or the failure thereof - the literal communication of speech and language, and the emotional communication between father and son, man and woman, friend and friend.

Nathaniel Rich, the son of New York Times writer Frank Rich, has a talent for storytelling. Language, eccentricity and surrealist absurdities are his - and the reader’s - delight.

The novel consists of two stories unconnected except for locales - New York and Trieste - with both culminating in the Carso, the wild limestone plateau north of Trieste, with its mountainous roads, tunnels, caves and underground rivers. Both cities are multilingual: New York with international immigrants and Trieste where Slovenian, Italian and a Venetian dialect are spoken.

There are stories within stories of lovers seeking one another in dreamlike circumstances, of missed connections and misunderstandings.

In the main story, Eugene Brentani, estranged from his immigrant Italian father and working in New York as a furniture mover, befriends Alvaro, a libidinous Dominican who speaks Cibaeno, a dialect spoken only in the farming communities of the Cibao Valley in the Dominican Republic. Alvaro speaks no English; Eugene no Cibaeno, but Eugene nevertheless agrees to translate Alvaro’s novel believing he understands the gist of it.

Eugene is an admirer of the works of Constance Eakins and is thrilled to find himself moving furniture for Abraham Chisholm who not only has a collection of all Eakins’ works but knows the writer. Eugene is taken with Chisolm’s daughter, Alison, and follows her to Trieste where she has gone to look for Eakins who may, or may not, be alive and may or may not be working on his 26th novel, “The Mayor’s Tongue.”

Once in Trieste, Eugene discovers that Alison, who “also goes by Sonia, Alicia, Alice, or Agata” has disappeared. He traces her up into the Carso where he finds her with a “gargantuan” being whom he assumes is Eakins, the mayor of a strange town called Idaville peopled with characters from Eakins’ books.

Eakins is a voracious eater; his huge tongue appeared to Eugene “like an infant … reaching its leg out of his mouth; it was muscular and seemed to be coated with very fine down.” Eakins tells Eugene that “every time you reveal a secret to someone … part of you dies… . If you reveal everything, you’re empty - just a collection of facts in other people’s minds.” Alison rejects Eugene and remains with Eakins in Idaville.

The second story involves two friends, Mr. Schmitz and Mr. Rutherford, who met during the war in Italy. Now, many years later in New York, they are inseparable. Rutherford decides to return to Italy. Letters become postcards; English becomes Italian. When Schmitz’ wife dies, he goes to find his friend in Milan.

Rutherford has forgotten English and speaks only Italian, when he speaks at all. Schmitz notices a “purple tongue-shaped mark down [Rutherford’s] jaw.” After Rutherford has a stroke, Schmitz surreptitiously removes him from the hospital and takes his friend to a small town in the Carso above Trieste where he tries to animate Rutherford’s brain waves by talking about all the cities he knows.

The tongue, whether Eakins’ “prodigious length of … purple-black tongue” or the tongue-shaped mark on Rutherford’s cheek, is the instrument of speech. Rutherford has lost the power of language and of speech; Schmitz babbles on without knowing whether Rutherford understands him; Eakins makes no sense to Eugene; Eugene and Alison are always at emotional cross-purposes; Eugene has never been able to communicate with his father and when he receives a batch of letters from Signor Brentani, they come too late; Eakins, professing to speak Cibaeno, tells Eugene Alvaro’s “novel” is merely a letter to Alvaro’s wife asking for a divorce.

It’s a treat to communicate with Mr. Rich’s flights of fancy.

n n n

Keith Gessen’s (Viking, $24.95, 242 pages) is likewise a first novel. It also entails separate story lines, here about three young men in their 20s, university graduates with projects they are having trouble completing, girlfriends or wives to whom they are unable to relate, and obsessions about their own worth. They bemoan their situations and are drunk a lot of the time. There are current political references throughout.

Sam wants to write the “first great Zionist epic” although he has never been to Israel and isn’t a practicing Jew. Mark is unable to finish his Ph.D. thesis on the Mensheviks of the Russian Revolution and seeks solace from his failed marriage in unsuccessful Internet dating. Keith (“[i]t’s Kostya, actually. Konstantin. My parents thought it sounded too Russian”) is struggling to find himself.

Of the three, Keith is the most sympathetic, the most reflective and the young man who truly grows up. He had “spent several years abroad, mostly in Moscow, watching a government slowly strangle an entire nation” and has published a book on American foreign policy.

Sam goes to Israel and meets with Palestinians in Jenin as he awaits the arrival of Israeli tanks, before returning to New York and a new life.

Mark is a loser, who manages to pull himself together but then wanders off into the unknown en route to Syracuse to defend his finally completed dissertation. There is no connection between the three story lines except that some of the women move from one character to another. The women are sketched with a light hand and the reader is never privy to their dreams and desires.

Yet “[t]hings do change. They change, but sometimes it’s hard to tell the reasons why or what it means.” And even these three mature. The most vivid section of the novel is Sam’s sojourn in Israel.

Mr. Gessen, who was born in Russia and educated at Harvard and Syracuse is a talented writer. “All the Sad Young Literary Men” is written with style, considerable wit and irony. Like Nathaniel Rich, Keith Gessen is a craftsman who possesses a way with words. The drawback of the novel is the lack of differentiation between the three young men. Nevertheless, it shows great promise and is a pleasurable read.

m Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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