Anne Tyler knows what she’s doing. She knows noisy, complaining, blaming and manipulative siblings inside and out (and their offspring and all those other people who get dragged in: babysitters, neighbors, step-aunts), the chaotic reunions and holidays, marked by hilarious and painful awkwardness, dotted with moments of grace, often offered by a particularly graceless person.
Anne Tyler knows the worn-out or angry or unappreciated mothers (and hard-working older sisters and even the men who find themselves needing to step up to that job), the marriages of miscommunication and dwindling returns, the deeply unsatisfactory (and occasionally blessed) pasts and presents of her own now-mythic Baltimore, which is nothing like “The Wire,” nothing like the grit and murder of “The Keepers,” nothing like the political rough-and-tumble of Nancy Pelosi’s hometown. This Baltimore is singularly Anne Tyler’s spool, ladder and planet. And Anne Tyler knows that memory is a powerhouse, a compass and also a liar.
Micah Mortimer, a protagonist, not a hero, is familiar to readers of Anne Tyler. He’s reasonably fit, knows how to cook a few things, washes up after dinner and is cautious and steady, and awfully pleased with his own caution and steadiness (he even calls upon the traffic gods to admire his skillful parking and good manners on the highway). Tyler’s protagonists are not the most exciting guys. They atone, they avoid. They worry, they fear. They set themselves uninspiringly small tasks and often fail. From “The Accidental Tourist” to “Saint Maybe” to “Noah’s Compass,” they are passive, worried (or trying very hard not to worry), cloistered, neither witty nor fun but not without humor. They, like Micah, are clueless until something comes along (sometimes tragedy but in Micah’s case, not quite) to wake them, shake them and transform them just enough to bring about a wry (not always happy) and fulfilling ending.
[ Read an excerpt from “Redhead by the Side of the Road.” ]
Micah is cocooned inside routine. When you meet his disorganized family, you know why: a front hall with piles of sneakers atop pruning shears and nail polish bottles, “noisy, unkempt merry people wearing wild colors, dogs barking, baby crying, TV blaring, bowls of chips and dips already savaged.” No one does the charms and horrors of family gatherings better than Tyler. Micah also has a lovely girlfriend, a sensible, kindhearted schoolteacher, Cass, and what she finds attractive in Micah is not apparent to this reader. And even so, Tyler is too good at what she does to let me dismiss Micah the way I want to. His barely understood grief when he has caused Cass to break up with him, his making a mess of his relationship with a young man who hopes Micah is his long-lost father is visceral and moving.