I know of Nathaniel Rich not as an editor of the Paris Review, but as the author of San Francisco Noir and of some discerning pieces in Slate, the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books. Late in his (2009) first novel, The Mayor’s Tongue, there is an appreciative invocation of San Francisco pleasing to our self-conception, counterpoised to the prototypical New York one. The narrative gets around, especially to Italy’s Slavic (Slovenian) of the 1940s and of a magical realist present (Trieste and inland in the mountains, the northern end of the Karst Plateau, called “Carso” in Italian), though the first half takes place in multicultural New York City.
Rich alternates chapters about two homosocial (but not homosexual) pairs separated in age by roughly a generation and a half. The one I find more interesting is a friendship between a college-educated Jewish Italian American, Eugene, and a very physically supple man, Alvaro, from the Cibao Valley in the Dominican Republic, who is monolingual in Cibaeño, a language that is “virtually incomprehensible to natives of the other Spanish-speaking countries in the Caribbean” even others from the Dominican Republic. Alvaro is uneducated, lives in Washington Heights with his wife and children, but also maintains a pied à tierre studio in Inwood where he sleeps with many other women, including new prostitutes every Saturday night. It is into this studio that Eugene moves.
The two have a job to move books for a Mr. Chisholm, who is writing a biography of a once-prolific American writer, Constance Eakins, whose work was the subject of Eugene’s senior thesis. It turns out that the shelves of books are all editions of Eakins book, and it is a short step for Chisholm to hire Eugene as an assistant, albeit not an editorial assistant. For that, he has his daughter Alison, who tells Eugene he can call her “Sonia.” She tires of devoting herself to helping her father, but not before enchanting Eugene, who will go off in search of her at the behest of her father (but really in quest of his princess, who may be with Eakins, though Eakins has just been declared officially dead in Italy, having disappeared 30 years earlier).
The second male pair involves a recently retired insurance agent, Mr. Schmitz, who had been in Italy when the US liberated it in 1944 with Rutherford. Schmitz is married to a wife, Agnes, with whom he spends little time and realizes he knows little about even after decades of marriage. The marriage was interrupted in the late-1940s to gourmandize across Europe with Rutherford and an Italian woman he married. After the honeymoon (on which Schmitz accompanied them), she died. Rutherford moved to New York City and has just been let go from a magazine that published a restaurant column by him for decades. There is an apartment in Milan at his disposal, one that had been occupied by his European equivalent (writing about restaurants across Europe).
Eugene is in hiding from his father, who had communicated little with him. Like Rutherford, Eugene’s father lost his beloved spouse early on. Like Alvaro, he never learned much English.
Though Eugene does not know Spanish or Cibaeño, Alvaro insists that Eugene translate the lengthy manuscript he doggedly composes in Cibaeño.
As should be apparent from what I have written, there is a lot of difficulty for the characters understanding each other, even (or especially) when they think they do. After the various characters all get to Italy, Rutherford turns out to have lost his English… and then his ability to speak. Though I know that Luigi Pirandello was born on the southern coast of Sicily, below Argentino, the novel moves into a very Pirandellian land, geographically further north.
Though I could list parallels between the two stories, not least in their somewhat magical realist endings, I am not convinced they belong together and justify the interruption of each other by alternating chapters. Maybe if some Eakins connection beyond the will to tell stories linked them (and a strained parallel of strange tongues)… Though the novel seems to me to be a bit too high-concept, I admire not only its ambition but also Rich’s development of characters differing not only in ethnicity but generation. And for me, The Mayor’s Tongue was a page-turner.
In one of the cover blurbs, Gary Shteyngart (Absurdistan) opines that Rich is “a writer in the thrall of language.” “Thrall” is a somewhat sinister word, that seems quite justified in reference to Rich’s novel. It seems to me that he is more in thrall to story-telling than to “language,” even when no one can understand the stories being told (though, eventually, there are characters who crave having more of their stories told…). Perhaps if the novel did not move to (and above) Trieste, where James Joyce taught Italo Svevo English, I might more easily have passed over this distinction.