Saturday, March 7, 2015

Tyler Shows Her Age in A Spool of Blue Thread

Anne Tyler has joined my growing group of septuagenarians and her latest novel A Spool of Blue Thread seems to profoundly reflect her initiation.  We now deal with the travails of aging in its broadest sense, the decline of our own physicality, our illnesses, deaths of friends and loved ones, and anxiety about the passage of time as we near the end of the hour glass.  For many of us, there are our adult children, and our grandchildren (not in my case) to worry about, in a changing world that bears no resemblance to the one we grew up in.   Essentially, this is what Anne Tyler speaks to in A Spool of Blue Thread, a metaphor that ties together four generations of the Whitshank family, which Tyler describes as being such a recent family that they were short on family history. They didn’t have that many stories to choose from.  They had to make the most of what they could get.

I loved this novel, for personal reasons as well as admiring the Tyler’s writing skills.  She is one of America’s best living writers. In my praise that follows I’ve tried to avoid “spoilers” but as one friend pointed out when I shared this before posting (she had read the novel as well), I reveal “critical piece[s] of the evolution of the family’s story and relationships” – ones that she would prefer to discover when reading the novel.  I could argue this point, but I’m issuing a “spoiler alert” just in case any reader of this entry doesn’t want to know too much about the book before reading it.

This is a family history told in typical “Tyleresque,” and set mostly in the “Tylertown” of Baltimore.  The women are mostly stalwartly idiosyncratic homebodies.  The men are mostly craftsmen, homebuilders. At the top of the Whitshank family tree there is the grandfather, Junior, and his wife, Linnie Mae.  We learn that she had basically forced herself upon him, first as a 13 year old and five years later, after Junior moved to a boarding house in Baltimore (and completely forgot Linnie Mae, his own family, the feeling mutual, hence being short on family history) Linnie Mae just turned up, suitcase in hand, to move in with him, although they had no contact during those five years:  She was the bane of his existence.  She was a millstone around his neck.  That night back in ’31 when he went to collect her from the train station and found her waiting out front – her unevenly hemmed gray coat too skimpy for the Baltimore winters, her floppy wide-brimmed felt hat so outdated that even Junior could tell – he’d had the incongruous thought that she was like mold on lumber.  You think you’ve scrubbed it off but one day you see it’s crept back again.  So, indeed, she did creep back into his life but he finally acknowledges that his ultimate success in the building business was in part due to her people skills.  (Junior is a craftsman, a perfectionist, but not very good with the customers.)  He builds a home for a Mr. and Mrs. Brill, but: This was the house of his life, after all (the way a different type of man would have a love of his life), and against any sort of logic he clung to the conviction that he would someday be living here.

And indeed in due course they did, bringing up their two children, daughter Merrick and son Redcliffe, in that home.  “Red” follows in his father’s footsteps with the business, marrying Abby (the main character in the novel) and they have four children, Amanda (who had a bossy streak), Jeannie (tomboyish when young), Denny (whose story becomes the beginning and end of the novel) and Stem (who was adopted when Denny was four).  Stem is called “Douglas” by his wife, Nora, later on in the novel.  Both Amanda and Jeannie ultimately marry men with the same name, Hugh, so…their husbands were referred to as ‘Amanda’s Hugh’ and ‘Jeannie’s Hugh’, just another “family quirk.”  Naturally, Red and Abby ultimately move into the house Junior built, the bedrock for the Whitshank chronicles.

The opening chapter reads almost like a self-contained short story – about the black sheep of the family, Denny.  Personality is established at an early age, and this incident takes place when he was 9 or 10: One time in the grocery store, when Denny was in a funk for some reason, "Good Vibrations" started playing over the loud- speaker. It was Abby's theme song, the one she always said she wanted for her funeral procession, and she began dancing to it. She dipped and sashayed and dum-da-da-dummed around Denny as if he were a maypole, but he just stalked on down the soup aisle with his eyes fixed straight ahead and his fists jammed into his jacket pockets. Made her look like a fool, she told Red when she got home. (She was trying to laugh it off.) He never even glanced at her! She might have been some crazy lady! And this was when he was nine or ten, nowhere near that age yet when boys find their mothers embarrassing. But he had found Abby embarrassing from earliest childhood, evidently. He acted as if he'd been assigned the wrong mother, she said, and she just didn't measure up.

As a young adult, Denny comes and goes, disappears for large amounts of time and then suddenly shows up.  And whenever he did come home, he was a stranger. Naturally, parents try to “figure out” their troubled offspring:
‘It’s because I didn’t shield him properly.’ Abby guessed.
‘Shield him from what?’ Red asked.
‘Oh…never mind.’
‘Not from me,’ Red told her.
‘If you say so.’
‘I’m not taking the rap for this, Abby.’
At such moments, they hated each other.

Doesn’t that have the ring of truth, universally applied to many families?  I’ve heard that conversation time and time again between my own parents.

Denny is shipped off to a small private college, but that didn’t change his nature. He was still the Whitshank’s mystery child.  He bounced around from here to there, occasionally keeping in touch by phone, Tyler describing it with her typical humorous slant: He had this way of talking on the phone that was so intense and animated; his parents could start to believe that he felt some urgent need for connection. For weeks at a time he might call every Sunday until they grew to expect it, almost depend on it, but then he'd fall silent for months and they had no means of reaching him. It seemed perverse that someone so mobile did not own a mobile phone. By now Abby had signed them up for caller ID, but what use was that? Denny was OUT OF AREA. He was UNKNOWN CALLER. There should have been a special display for him: CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.

Denny suddenly marries.  The Whitshank family is invited to the wedding in NYC.  The preacher was a bike messenger with a license from the Universal Life Church.  Denny and his wife Carla have a baby, Susan, with whom at one stretch Denny regularly takes (without Carla) to visit his parents.  Suddenly, no word again, and it goes on for three years and after 9/11 Abby can take it no longer, afraid for her son and their granddaughter and they finally trace him.  After several failed attempts to contact him, they ask his older sister Amanda to call.  Abby and Red stand by the phone as the call is placed.  Denny answers.  Although the Whitshank’s couldn’t hear what Denny said after Amanda identified herself, they could imagine by what Amanda continued to say: Someday you’re going to be a middle-aged man thinking back on your life, and you'll start wondering what your family's been up to. So you'll hop on a train and come down, and when you get to Baltimore it will be this peaceful summer afternoon and these dusty rays of sunshine will be slanting through the skylight in Penn Station. You'll walk on through and out to the street, where nobody is waiting for you, but that's okay; they didn't know you were coming. Still, it feels kind of odd standing there all alone, with the other passengers hugging people and climbing into cars and driving away. You go to the taxi lane and you give the address to a cabbie. You ride through the city looking at all the familiar sights-the row houses, the Bradford pear trees, the women sitting out on their stoops watching their children play. Then the taxi turns onto Bouton Road and right away you get a strange feeling. There are little signs of neglect at our house that Dad would never put up with: blistered paint and gap-toothed shutters. Mismatched mortar patching the walk, rubber treads nailed to the porch steps-all these Harry Homeowner fixes Dad has always railed against. You take hold of the front-door handle and you give it that special pull toward you that it needs before you can push down the thumb latch, but it's locked. You ring the doorbell, but it's broken. You call, 'Mom? Dad?' No one answers. You call, 'Hello?' No one comes running; no one flings open the door and says, 'It's you! It's so good to see you! Why didn't you let us know? We'd have met you at the station! Are you tired? Are you hungry? Come in!' You stand there a while, but you can't think what to do next. You turn and look back toward the street, and you wonder about the rest of the family. 'Maybe Jeannie,' you say. 'Or Amanda.' But you know something, Denny? Don't count on me to take you in, because I'm angry. I'm angry at you for leading us on such a song and dance all these years, not just these last few years but all the years, skipping all those holidays and staying away from the beach trips and missing Mom and Dad's thirtieth anniversary and their thirty-fifth and Jeannie's baby and not attending my wedding that time or even sending a card or calling to wish me well.  But most of all, Denny, most of all: I will never forgive you for consuming every last drop of our parents’ attention and leaving nothing for the rest of us.

This is a poignant piece of writing, a cautionary note about the passage of time and the dangers of ignoring family and the ordinary details of our lives.  Abby wonders how they settled for so little when it came to their prodigal son. She says, ‘would you have believed it? Sometimes whole days go by when I don’t give him a thought.’  This is not natural! Red said, ‘It’s perfectly natural. Like a mother cat when her kittens are grown.  You’re showing very good sense.’ And this is just the first chapter, and it sets the stage for everything that follows. 

Tyler though does not construct the novel chronologically, instead moving back and forth in time. Regarding the grandfather, Junior, in her usual good humor Tyler explains -- If it seems odd to call a patriarch ‘Junior,’ there was a logical explanation.  Junior’s true name was Jurvis Roy, shortened at some point to J.R. and then re-expanded, accordion-like, to Junior.  As noted, Junior builds the house of his dreams for Mr. Brill, knowing full well in his heart that eventually he would be able to buy it, which he did.  He fidgets with it for the rest of his life as a builder, head of Whitshank Construction, then carried on by his son Red who moves his family into the house.  The house stands as a bulwark in juxtaposition to the fragility of the family.

Then another time leap to Abby who comes from another section of Baltimore and marries Red.  Might Tyler’s description of Abby match up in some ways to her own? As a girl, she'd been a fey sprite of a thing. She'd worn black turtlenecks in winter and peasant blouses in summer; her hair had hung long and straight down her back while most girls clamped their pageboys into rollers every night. She wasn't just poetic but artistic, too, and a modern dancer, and an activist for any worthy cause that came along. You could count on her to organize her school's Canned Goods for the Poor drive and the Mitten Tree. Her school was Merrick's school, private and girls-only and posh, and though Abby was only a scholarship student, she was the star there, the leader. In college, she plaited her hair into cornrows and picketed for civil rights. She graduated near the top of her class and became a social worker, what a surprise, venturing into Baltimore neighborhoods that none of her old schoolmates knew existed. Even after she married Red (whom she had known for so long that neither of them could remember their first meeting), did she turn ordinary? Not a chance. She insisted on natural childbirth, breast-fed her babies in public, served her family wheat germ and home-brewed yogurt, marched against the Vietnam War with her youngest astride her hip, sent her children to public schools. Her house was filled with her handicrafts-macrame plant hangers and colorful woven serapes. She took in strangers off the streets, and some/of them stayed for weeks. There was no telling who would show up at her dinner table.

Skipping to the very present, we learn that Abby has a form of dementia.   This begins a progression of events and the eventual rallying of the family, even Denny.   On one lovely day, with the family on the porch Denny was recollecting to Stem (who is now running the business for aged Red) about his earliest recollection of his grandfather ripping out the walkway and resetting the stones, Abby comments ‘Oh, you men, stop talking shop!....Weather like this always takes me back to the day I fell in love with Red’…The others smiled.  They knew the story well….’It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon’ Abby began. Which was the way she always began, exactly the same words, every single time. On the porch, everybody relaxed. Their faces grew smooth, and their hands loosened in their laps. It was so restful to be sitting here with family, with the birds talking in the trees and the crosscut-sawing of the crickets and the dog snoring at their feet and the children calling, ‘Safe! I'm safe!’

That’s as good as it gets for any writer, to be able to conjure up such images.  I read and reread the passage again and again.  Even in my own twisted childhood there were times I felt “I’m safe.”

For some time the adult children, along with spouses and Abby and Red’s grandchildren come and go to help their aging parents.  There we learn much about the internal sibling rivalry, the hurts, the jealousies, and how these emotions relate to their upbringing.  In particular, Stem (Douglas) and Denny come to blows, literally. 

Abby, even in her condition, comes upon certain truths about life such as, you wake in the morning, you’re feeling fine, but all at once you think, ‘Something’s not right.  Something’s off somewhere; what is it?’  And then you remember that it’s your child – whichever one is unhappy.

She is seeing a doctor about her condition but she wants to discuss philosophical issues: ‘And time,’ she would tell Dr. Wiss. ‘Well, you know about time. How slow it is when you're little and how it speeds up faster and faster once you're grown. Well, now it's just a blur. I can't keep track of it anymore! But it's like time is sort of ... balanced. We're young for such a small fraction of our lives, and yet our youth seems to stretch on forever. Then we're old for years and years, but time flies by fastest then. So it all comes out equal in the end, don't you see.’  I’m sure even Einstein would agree.  It’s all relative!

To go on with more about Abby’s fate is to reveal too much.  The house of the Brills, then Junior’s, and then Red’s stands steadfast front and center, almost like another character in the novel, but even that eventually devolves.  Everything changes over the course of time, but the spool of blue thread runs from generation to generation to generation.  Tyler captures this in perhaps her most ambitious novel ever, showing her abiding sympathy for her characters, and there are many in this novel.

It fittingly ends as it begins, focused on peripatetic Denny, who is searching for his own sense of belonging and place, as he boards a train for New Jersey on the eve of hurricane Sandy, an interesting image to leave the reader with towards the conclusion of this wonderful, evocative, but essentially melancholy, novel.  Tyler may be showing her age, but clearly with no diminution of her writing skills. 
My grandfather's Richmond Hill family home circa 1930's