Dead Languages

David Shields, Author, Ann Close, Editor Alfred A. Knopf $18.95 (245p) ISBN 978-0-394-57388-5
The story of a boy who stutters, at war with, yet entranced by, language, Shields's ( Heroes ) second novel is a bitingly funny cry from the heart and a mordant paean to the power of words. ``Sometimes my childhood seems . . . an endless series of . . . overwrought attempts to get beyond a voice that bothered me,'' reflects Jeremy Zorn, victim of a speech defect that becomes his life's animating principle. Snared by sibilants, reduced to social helplessness, like a modern-day Demosthenes he resolves to use language to ``rearrange the world.'' His handicap comes to seem emblematic of obstacles to communication in general, and helpful in dramatizing them: ``I thought it was my duty to insert into every conversation the image of its own absurdity,'' Jeremy contends, and his coming-of-age requires a comprehensive survey of the available means of verbal rebellion. They include ghetto slang; sign language; singing in the school chorus; debating; and Latin (which ``existed only on the page. . . . was always silent''). However, Jeremy's fitting, final choice of existential weapon is fiction. Shields flexes substantial intellectual muscle, yet powerfully sympathetic portraits of Jeremy, his family and their friends also account for the novel's vitality; all and sundry invite effervescently sarcastic comment from the stutterer. The frustration bred by his ``neurasthenic self-consciousness'' commands Jeremy to let off steam of a high order of hilarity, while driving him to search for his place in the world with uncommon, compelling ferocity. (Apr . )
Reviewed on: 04/01/1989
Release date: 04/01/1989
Paperback - 256 pages - 978-0-06-097291-2
Paperback - 246 pages - 978-1-55597-274-5
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