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Nathaniel Rich
The Mayor's Tongue
Riverhead / Penguin Putnam
Us Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 1-594-48990-4
Publication Date: 04-17-2008
316 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 03-20-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index General Fiction Fantasy  

It's our perception that the world we inhabit, the specific locale where reside is a place, but that's not the case. There is, of course, a physical reality that underlies what we call place, but our understanding is not one of borders and terrain. We do not live in a place. We live in a story. 'The Mayor's Tongue' by Nathaniel Rich resides in the same sort of borderland the characters within the novel inhabit; a world where the perceptions of those who experience it will alter the terrain to both suit and undermine any expectations.

Rich eschews traditions and immerses us in two unusual narratives. Eugene Brentani has just graduated and is actively engaged in avoiding his former life. He's told his father that he's moved to Florida, but he's only just moved to a different neighborhood in New York City. From working with a moving company, he finds employment working for a scholar who is authoring a biography of Constance Eakins, a larger-than-life Hemingway-eqsue figure, now supposedly residing in a remote Italian mountaintop village. Eugene's a fan, and this is a dream job. Perhaps more than he expects.

Mr. Schmitz and Mr. Rutherford are lifelong friends and aging retirees living in New York, until Rutherford hares off to Italy. Schmitz becomes increasingly concerned as Rutherford's letters become increasingly strange. His friend seems to have escaped into a dream world of mental illness, and Schmitz will have to journey to Italy to find him.

Rich lays out each story in impeccable style, with an understated humor and a surreal sensibility. Since we're in Italy, we get to hear Italo Svevo's name pop up and not just in the name of Mr. Schmitz. (Svevo's real name was Ettore Schmitz.) Svevo, a translator for James Joyce, is the author of 'Zeno's Conscience,' an eerily relevant and prescient novel about a man trying to find his way through life, written with verve, humor, insight, and a slightly surreal sensibility. It's strange, funny and hovers in the mountaintop fog of 'The Mayor's Tongue.'

'The Mayor's Tongue' is a book that is rich in strange, as well as rich and strange. Rich successfully eludes your expectations and offers snippets of fairy tale, post-modern academic satire, and most importantly, characters we love to encounter. Fans of Svevo will be delighted, as will anyone who likes elements of the fantastic seamlessly integrated into a delightfully droll exploration of that borderland between fiction and reality.

Eugene's journey into the Italian landscape maps a world that does not quite exist and crosses the border into the surreally fictional. We see glimpses of creatures from myth and legends — or are they merely a misperception of the people who have lived here for so long that borders any kind no longer matter. As Eugene's story and the story of Schmitz and Rutherford converge, a new, mythic terrain emerges. Rich creates a vision of the world where myth, history, fantasy and story mingle and become one.

How many people do you know who have a "Truth turns to fiction" button? How often do they lean on it and how heavily? Rich's novel is an hilarious and poignant exploration the land of lies, the land that lies between our eyes, the land we create every time we see something and apprehend a vision. We take charge and make it our own, even if in doing so we change it beyond recognition. We don't often realize that we ourselves change beyond recognition.

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