DEAD LANGUAGES by David Shields
Kirkus Star


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Second-novelist Shields (Heroes, 1984) takes on the hoary old coming-of-age (of a writer, no less) genre and manages to give it passion, Çlan, humor, and plenty of depth. The troubled boyhood of Jeremy Zorn, who grows up in the 1960's, is marked most noticeably by his speech impediment: he's a stutterer. An early episode in which his powerfully dominating mother tries to effect her own cure (she's a successful and zealously ambitious left-wing journalist) only makes things worse (as do Mother's continuing ministrations to her son--and her soul-withering but high-minded criticisms of just about everything he does). Older sister Beth doesn't help either--blazing a trail of unparalleled academic brilliance for the mumbling, self-doubting Jeremy to follow. And then there's Jeremy's father: a kind but weak man; unflagging defender of the Rosenbergs' innocence and a manic depressive who, ever since he stepped on the third rail as a boy, has been in and out of hospitals for electroshock treatments. Within this world of liberal zeal and psychological chaos, stuttering Jeremy makes his way, yearning always (especially) to earn the impossible approval of his principled and dauntless mother. The 60's pass as Jeremy moves through grade school (he tries to prove himself through sports), into junior high (he botches one of his two lines in a production of Othello), past first love (his girlfriend is incensed to find that he's not yet pubescent), and through a case of skin rash and acne so awful that he jumps in blind despair from a cliff at the beach, badly breaking a leg. One keeps expecting this loping Bildungsroman to slow and sag, but it somehow deepens instead; Jeremy's entrance to UCLA, the burgeoning of his literary interests, his prolonged wrestlings in speech therapy (a tour de force of expertise and subtle drama), even his mother's death by cancer and his father's final breakdown avoid excesses of the melodramatic or conventional and are made, finally, all of a piece in an unpresuming, seriocomic novel about high themes: the paradoxes of liberalism, the mysteries of language ("Stutterers are truth-tellers; everyone else is lying"), and the awful nature of despair. Engaging, sure-footed, and bighearted work.

Pub Date: April 24th, 1989
ISBN: 394-57388-9
Publisher: Knopf
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