Anne Tyler: Redhead By the Side of the Road
My wife and I listened to the Audible recording of this a couple of weeks ago when we made the five-and-a-half-hour drive up to north Alabama for a wedding. We generally listen to a book on these trips, and my preference is for mysteries and other books that are strong on plot and not overly demanding, so I was not particularly enthusiastic about this choice. But she already had it as part of her Audible subscription, and we didn't have anything else in mind, and I thought it would be okay, at worst, and anyway it's only four-and-something hours long.
Also, I had read Tyler's The Accidental Tourist quite a few years ago, back in the '80s I guess, and very much enjoyed it. If memory serves (which it often doesn't), that book was the story of a man who has very low expectations of life and keeps its vagaries at bay by following strict routines and most definitely avoiding anything that might be seen as an adventure. He's found a niche as a travel writer for people who hate to travel but are obligated to do it (hence the title). He meets a lively and somewhat eccentric woman who brings him out of his shell. That may be a poor summary, but as I say it's what I recall, and I mention it only because this book follows a broadly similar outline.
Micah Mortimer is a forty-something man who lives alone, has never been married though he has a girlfriend and has had others in the past, and makes a very modest living with two part-time jobs. After a promising start in college and with a tech company that he helped to found but which failed, he's now a caretaker/handyman at an apartment complex, and has a one-man computer support business as the Tech Hermit. The opening scene shows him affixing a magnetic sign bearing that name to the roof of his Kia as he goes out on a call, and the term is obviously all too appropriate for him. He follows a rigid daily and weekly routine. The girlfriend--"woman friend," as he says, because she's too old to be called a girl--does not seem to be very important to him.
I read somewhere that Jordan Peterson sums up male-female differences as "Women are interested in people, men are interested in things." Well, Micah certainly serves as an example of this. He is good at the repair work he does at the apartment complex, good at his computer work, but laughably--or pathetically, depending on your mood--obtuse about human relationships. He drives away his woman-friend in a conversation in which even I, a male, can see that she is desperately asking and hoping for him to respond in a certain very obvious way. But her plea sails right past him, and her reaction leaves him perfectly baffled.
Micah has four sisters, and a scene in which he attends a family get-together is one of the best in the book. The sisters have zero interest in technology, but are intensely interested in his "relationship." And of course they see aspects of him to which he is quite blind. These sisters are an instance of the gift I was talking about a few posts ago, in relation to Sigrid Undset: the uncanny ability of some writers to give life to characters. This is only one scene, and the sisters are not even described, physically or psychologically, in any detail. And yet they seemed real.
What jostles Micah off his narrow track is not, at least initially, a woman, but a young man who appears at his apartment one day because he has come to believe that Micah is his father. And I'll leave my sketch of the story at that.
This is not a great novel; it doesn't plumb the psychological or philosophical depths of what it means to be human (as does, for instance, Kristin Lavransdatter). It is in fact rather slight. But I thoroughly enjoyed it: it's warm, gentle, and compassionate without being sentimental, acutely sensitive, and very quietly humorous. And the Audible version is enhanced by the reader, MacLeod Andrews, who has, among other things, an ability to render female voices in a way that seems feminine but does not seem to be an attempt to sound like a woman.
Judging by the one other Anne Tyler novel I've read, it seems to revisit some of her familiar themes. It's not very long, and I see among the reviews at Amazon a number of complaints that it's too short and could or should have been further developed. Readers unhappy that you didn't write more are surely the best sort of unhappy readers a writer could have. Anne Tyler will be eighty this year, and has written twenty-three novels, many of which are both popular and very highly regarded by critics. So it wouldn't be surprising if the stream is beginning to run dry. If she wants or needs a rest, she has certainly earned it. I don't read much contemporary fiction at all, but I'm pretty sure I'll read more of Tyler's work.
Read the book to learn the significance of the title.
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, I think it is called, is a very good book by Tyler.
Posted by: Stu | 05/23/2021 at 07:30 PM
Her Wikipedia article says that was one of her most successful. Probably a good bet for the next to try.
Posted by: Mac | 05/23/2021 at 08:56 PM
One more Anne Tyler comment. I have not read it, but one of the Theology professors would assign Saint Maybe in his class on Reconciliation. I never took that course, but was of course curious about the book.
Posted by: Stu | 05/27/2021 at 06:51 PM
It would certainly be possible to get some theological significance out of Redhead by the Side of the Road. More than possible, fairly easy in fact. It would be "horizontal" theology based on human relationships, and the actual theo part would be inferred. Saint Maybe I have no idea about.
Posted by: Mac | 05/27/2021 at 09:26 PM