In the last couple of months of my Mum’s life I bought her a few novels that I thought would give her pleasure. Although we didn’t know, then, how dire her health was, I did know that she was tired and needed good but not overly demanding or depressing reads. So, for Easter, I gave her Pip Williams’ The dictionary of lost words; for Mothers Day, I gave her Sulari Gentill’s A few right thinking men and Anna Goldsworthy’s Melting moments; and, then, when she went into hospital, I bought her Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the side of the road. Being the lexicographer she was, she loved The dictionary of lost words. She took A few right thinking men into hospital and read two-thirds of it before tiredness defeated her. She was finding the historical background really interesting, but she was keen to get onto Tyler whose books she’d read before. Unfortunately, she never did, but I picked it up as I sat by her bed on the last day of her life. It’s a long time since I’ve read Tyler, but it turned out to be the perfect book for my current state of mind. Even so, it took me two weeks to read it …
Anne Tyler has created some memorable characters and/or situations. I loved The accidental tourist with its travel writer aiming to show American businessmen how to travel without feeing they’d left home – the antithesis of how Mr Gums and I like to travel. I remember the opening of Breathing lessons with the couple squabbling about navigating as they drive to a funeral under pressure. And, her empty-nest-fearing character in The ladder of years who just ups and leaves in the middle of a family holiday is such a wonderful conceit. If she were Australian, we’d probably describe her work as quirky.
What makes Tyler’s novels so enjoyable, then, are her characters and her writing. Her characters are believable but just a little off-centre, and her writing is accessible, but tight and evocative. Her novels are character rather than plot-driven, but they don’t wallow in her characters’ lives. She keeps the story moving.
So, in Redhead by the side of the road, we have 41-year-old Micah Mortimer, “such a narrow and limited man; so closed off.” Routine is his mantra, and you could pretty much set your clock by it. He’s not particularly socially astute, and doesn’t understand the jokes his four older sisters make about him, particularly when he tells them that it looks like his latest girlfriend, Cass, has broken off their relationship. He doesn’t explain that the cause was his inept response to her announcement that she feared she was about to lose her flat – because he hasn’t realised it himself. This is one of the catalysts that forces him to reconsider his life. The other is the sudden appearance on his doorstep of college freshman, Brink, who thinks Micah might be his father.
Now, Brink is the son of his first serious girlfriend Lorna. Micah knows for a fact that Brink is not his son but he accepts this young man into his home and tries, in his own way, to help. While all this is going on, he also keeps an eye out on his apartment building where he “moonlights as a super” and he attends calls for his sole-trader business, Tech Hermit. I must say that, living with my own tech expert, I loved Micah’s interactions with his clients, so many of which I’ve heard Mr Gums have with various friends and family members. “Have you turned it off and then on again?”, for example. The password-finding escapade for a young girl who had inherited her gran’s home and computer is particularly entertaining.
However, that’s not the subject of the novel. What is, is Micah’s slowly growing awareness of life not being as he has seen it, of realising that striving for predicable order does not necessarily make you happy. When Lorna explains why their relationship had ended, our routine-focused Micah, who has never been good at seeing things from other perspectives, has “to adjust to this altered view of the past”. The novel’s title provides a little insight into this:
He slowed to a walk on the last stretch approaching York Road. He momentarily mistook the hydrant for a redhead and gave his usual shake of the shoulders at how repetitious this thought was, how repetitious all his thoughts were, how they ran in a deep rut and now his life ran in a rut, really.
Micah, though, is not the only character muddling along. The thing I like about Tyler is that all her characters muddle along. She forces us to see below the surface, to see that while some may appear more successful than others, may have the trappings of success – like Lorna – all have their insecurities or uncertainties. The novel is full of gentle but no less pointed insights into relationships – Micah’s with his messy, chaotic family, for example, or, Lorna’s with her husband. And it has some sensible down-home philosophies, such as “what’s the point of living if you don’t try to do things better” and “try again, try again, and try again after that … because what else can a person do”.
All this might sound a bit cutesy, but the thing is that beneath Tyler’s apparent cutesiness, is a warm but clear-eyed view of human nature. She sees our foibles, our mis-steps, our little self-delusions, but she wants us to make our lives work. Redhead by the side of the road is no exception, and was just the right read for me for now. I must get back to reading Tyler.
Redhead by the side of the road
London: Chatto and Windus, 2020