Stephen Bottum
April 11, 2008 AT 04:00 AM EDT

In his ambitious debut, The Mayor’s Tongue, Nathaniel Rich offers dual fanciful narratives about the importance of storytelling. Underachiever Eugene ”translates” a pal’s quest manuscript from an incomprehensible language while he pursues a biographer’s daughter. She’s researching Eugene’s literary hero, Eakins, which leads her to absurdist heaven: an Italian town populated by Eakins’ fictional characters, who call Eakins ”the Mayor.” Meanwhile, two aged WWII veterans part ways in Manhattan and reunite in Milan. Even readers wary of Rich’s quicksilver reversals can admire his passion for fiction’s potential. B+

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