There's something intoxicating about reading a clever novel; it's the literary equivalent of watching an acrobat walk the high-wire without a net. Each sentence brings the writer further out into space and away from safety, and while part of the thrill comes from the freedom of open air and the technical skill of the performer, there's the added tension that someone could take a long, painful fall. With fiction, that risk is doubled—not only can smart writing turn leaden and earthbound, it also runs the danger of becoming too light and floating off into the sky. For most of its length, The Mayor's Tongue manages the balance, but when it finally reaches the platform on the other side, the performance doesn't seem worth the necessary muscle control.
The debut novel of editor and essayist Nathaniel Rich, Tongue follows two seemingly unconnected narratives through alternating chapters. In the first, a young man named Eugene falls for the daughter of an elderly biographer; when the daughter disappears while searching for her father's subject, larger-than-life author Constance Eakins, Eugene travels to Europe to find her. In the second narrative, an old man named Schmitz mourns after his best friend, Mr. Rutherford, moves to Italy, but he's soon drawn to the country by Rutherford's increasingly erratic letters. Eugene and Schmitz's plots stay separate until the book's final pages, but even then, their intersection remains largely, and disappointingly, opaque.
Still, the novel has its pleasures. Rich's prose, while a little stiff, achieves a sensual frisson in its piles of adjectives, and there's a sense of wonder in the places and characters Eugene and Mr. Schmitz encounter. Tongue is at its best in the details, like the stories Rutherford tells Schmitz late at night to help him sleep, or the summaries Eugene gives of Eakins' various works. Rich owes an obvious debt to Jorge Luis Borges, and he makes the most of it, but while Borges' best work was as passionate as it was playful, for all its metatextual trickery, Tongue never gets beyond playing games. Those games are fun to follow, and Rich shows promise if he can find a way to ground them; for right now, though, he's less a tightrope walker than a crossword-puzzle creator who sometimes forgets to provide all the clues.