Anne Tyler has been my favourite novelist for years now, ever since I saw The Accidental Tourist in 1988 and decided to read the book. It’s one of the few times a movie actually led me to a book, although it did happen again with Remains of the Day in 1993 and Trainspotting in 1996. (I might never have discovered Irvine Welsh if it wasn’t for Danny Boyle’s brilliant depiction of a group of heroin addicts in a depressed area of Edinburgh. Who could ever forget Robert Carlyle’s performance as the terrifying, alcoholic psychopath Franco Begbie or Ewan McGregor’s hallucinations of a baby crawling on the ceiling? Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen the movie, the baby is already dead.)
But back to Anne Tyler. Since that first book, I’ve made it a policy to buy every one of her books as they come out. I buy them in hard copy, I read them immediately, and I never give them away. I am, in other words, a fan. Why is that, do you think? Well, lately I’ve been asking myself why I rush to grab her books hot off the press and wait with anticipation for the next one. She’s not necessarily the greatest fiction writer in the English language and as far as I can tell none of her books have been included in any of the lists of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. She has, however, won a score of prizes and was nominated for the Pulitzer three times (she won it in 1989 for Breathing Lessons). She’s been compared to John Updike and Jane Austen, and many of her books – she’s written twenty-three – have been New York Times Bestsellers.
The reason people love Tyler, as far as I can make it out, is that her stories are very satisfying. There’s a pattern to them and if, like me, you like that pattern, you are going to enjoy the story from beginning to end. Part of the pattern has to do with the characters: they are unusual. And by unusual I mean the men are not heroic, the women are usually nice-looking but not gorgeous, the narrative is almost never dramatic. Nobody gets killed, although the characters often carry the baggage of people they have loved and lost and it makes them, in one way or another, just a little different. Which is what I love about them. Her characters feel real – they feel like someone you might know, or used to know. Someone who lives down the street, or married your sister, or taught you back in high school. Tyler writes about ordinary characters and makes them fascinating. And that, my friend, is something close to genius.
Take her 2020 novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road. Like almost all her books, it’s set in Baltimore where Tyler has lived since the late 1960s. Micah Mortimer is a 43-year-old building superintendent who has his own tech support business. He lives alone and he has a girlfriend, Cass, who does not live with him. (He refers to Cass as his “woman friend” because he refuses to call anyone in her late thirties a “girlfriend”.) Micah has a set routine – “etched in stone”, Tyler tells us. At seven fifteen every morning he goes for a run; around ten or ten-thirty he sets out on his tech calls; afternoons are spent working around the building; in the evening he may hang out with Cass – otherwise, by ten o’clock he’s in bed. His days have been proscribed in this way for several years and he’s perfectly happy to keep them that way.
Early in the story, however, two things happen to blow things to smithereens. Cass tells him she’s being evicted from her apartment and a young man turns up at his door claiming to be his son. Micah’s meticulously organized life is thrown off-kilter; Cass wants him to invite her to come live with him and Brink, the would-be son, is hoping for the same. Micah’s disinclination to accommodate these expectations cause friction between him and Cass, who breaks up with him, and his sister and her family, who like Cass and believed she was perfect for Micah. As for Brink, he leaves after Micah gives him an ultimatum: call your mother and let her know where you are or get out. Brink chooses to get out, leaving Micah with the sense that he could have handled the situation more tactfully.
Anne Tyler writes about the way we each, as individuals, navigate the path we’ve chosen. Or, quite often, the path that has been chosen for us. She writes about marriages that are growing old and changing (Breathing Lessons), the tensions and secrets within middle-class familes (A Spool of Blue Thread), and the curious consequences of unexpected, even unwanted, encounters with other people (The Accidental Tourist). And underpinning all of this is the theme of mortality – we are human, we are born, we die. What we do in between those two points may not matter to the rest of the world but it’s important to us.
The characters in Redhead by the Side of the Road are imperfect beings. They make mistakes, say the wrong things, struggle to connect with those around them. But almost invariably they have certain qualities that make us root for them: they have the capacity to learn, to change, to become better people. Her characters eventually open themselves up to life, to the promise of another way of living. This is what I love about her books and this is why I keep reading.
Tyler, Anne. Redhead by the Side of the Road. (2020) Bond Street Books.