Whether you’re sequestered at home or out working, you must find that this “social isolation/distancing” is getting tiresome. I’ve tried a number of diversions, even turning to the struggles of the shameless miscreants of “Tiger King,” the Netflix docu-series about big-cat breeding. I needed a good book – something not too heavy or long. My prayers were answered when I learned that Anne Tyler (yes, another of my favorites) has just published her 23rd novel,”Redhead by the Side of the Road” (Knopf).
Tyler is one of the world’s most admired modern writers, winner of both a Pulitzer (for “Breathing Lessons,” 1988) and the National Book Critics Circle award (for “The Accidental Tourist,” 1995, which was made into an Oscar-winning film) and a finalist for the Man Booker (“A Spool of Blue Thread,” 2015) and the Women’s prize for fiction (“Ladder of Years” from 1995, and “A Spool of Blue Thread”). A master at chronicling the lives of ordinary people, her books are as unassuming as her name. Her prose style is clear and concise; her sentences have no flourishes; she’s not dazzling. Her characters are unique in contemporary literature, in that they are taken from the mainstream of American life, rather than its margins. Like most Americans, but unlike most characters in American fiction, they have siblings and spouses and children and parents. These family members tend to dominate their lives, whether they like it or not.
Reading Tyler’s novels, readers find themselves drawn into the inner lives of people they would normally pass in the street without a second glance. This latest book centers on an unassuming Baltimore (where Tyler places most of her stories) computer repairman in his early 40s. Micah Mortimer is the kind of semi-detached man who often features in Tyler’s fiction: someone avoiding the very thing for which he craves, which is commitment. Leading a solitary and heavily self-regimented existence, he exercises every morning and passes his evenings playing solitaire on his mobile phone. “You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer,” the book begins. “He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.” More sensational novelists would plant a corpse under Micah’s patio, or have him involved in a secret affair with an 18-year-old cheerleader, or start dealing in drugs. This is not Tyler’s way. She’s far more interested in writing about people who amble along, without any great sense of purpose. Micah “has a girlfriend, but they seem to lead fairly separate lives … He doesn’t appear to have male friends.” Just why he is so ordinary is unclear. He came from a chaotic family, but so did his friendly, well-adjusted sisters; he’s no stranger to heartbreak and disappointment, but then who is?
Micah ekes out a living fixing the technical problems of mainly elderly city residents who turn to the “tech hermit” because they don’t know how to turn their modems on and off. He also moonlights as a handyman for his shabby apartment block. Tyler is beautifully adept at describing the detachment of Micah’s easy-going friendliness as he goes from client to client, fixing their computers, while avoiding any other involvement. In his apartment complex, he is pleasant to the tenants but no more than that and shrugs off the attempts of those supposedly close to him who suggest modifications or enhancements to his behavior and habits. Tyler’s skill is to make sure that readers can see his point while also cringing at his lack of interest. After all, if the girlfriend you’re frankly lucky to have tells you she’s about to be evicted, reassuring her that the rental market is booming is a mistake. Tyler writes “Sometimes when he was dealing with people he felt like he was operating one of those claw machines on a boardwalk, those shovel things where you tried to scoop up a prize but the controls were too unwieldy and you worked at too great a remove.” True, but “people” aren’t supposed to include your girlfriend and your family.
“Redhead by the Side of the Road,” the title a reference to the tendency of Micah’s aging eyes to mistake lifeless objects for human beings when he’s out running, is a compact novel of vignettes. Each one is peppered with miniature portraits of other lives and they bear the author’s characteristic sympathy and brilliance at capturing something essential in only a few brush strokes. Early in the story, Micah opens his door to a character who could have walked straight out of any number of other books by Tyler. This is Brink, the son of a former college girlfriend of Micah’s, who has run away from home and mistakenly thinks Micah might be his father. Tyler is exceptionally perceptive in her depictions of young misfits who are at odds with their families. They feel let down by life and harbor a multitude of resentments. In “Redhead,” the runaway teen and the middle-aged bachelor are both, in their different ways, in flight from commitment – they don’t want to be tied down. Neither can quite understand the other. “Even though Brink was most definitely not his son, Micah had a sudden inkling of how it would feel if he DID have a son – one who had turned out to be a disappointment. A dud.”
Unlike her other novels, this one features numerous references to current events. Micah won’t watch the news because it’s too “depressing,” but he can’t block out the “unspeakably sad” bulletins from his clock radio: “a mass shooting in a synagogue; whole families are dying in Yemen; immigrant children torn from their parents will never, ever be the same, even if by some unlikely chance they are reunited tomorrow.” However, when Tyler does turn her talents to darker aspects of family life that is when her novels achieve greatness and “Redhead by the Side of the Road” is no exception.
Thank heaven in these confusing times we have Anne Tyler and her books. She keeps the new ones coming, and we can return to the old ones again and again.