Anne Tyler’s works could be described as being from the school of the comedy of manners, and I’ve made many comparisons in the past of her work to Jane Austen’s penchant for dissecting societal foibles. Tyler’s writings also embody the mysterious, the light within her characters, very in keeping with her Quaker upbringing, and bringing in a touch of magical realism in the dreams of her characters, including daydreams. Redhead by the Side of the Road has all those elements. Here are people we all know and their quotidian lives are ones most of us share in some way. Tyler knows how to engage us.
The life of the protagonist, Micah Mortimer, is yet another diorama in the Anne Tyler Museum of Damaged Men. He’s an inherently good man but flawed, essentially a loner, a man of routine. Tyler establishes that right out of the gate: You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.
That routine involves his three jobs, his work as the super of a small apartment house for which he has living space in a basement with a few high windows, his work as the sole proprietor of a computer repair business, aptly named “Tech Hermit,” for which he has a magnet sign he slaps on his KIA, and his day to day “work” of living, provisioning, cleaning, dressing, eating, and a run in the morning. He has a system for every such task, even commenting out loud in a foreign accent on his housework and having a running dialogue as he drives with an imaginary “Traffic God” who normally will compliment him on his prudent driving. Indeed, you “have to wonder.”
As a computer nerd, he gets business from Google searches and the notoriety of his one and only published book, First, Plug It In. It was one of Woolcott Publishing’s better-selling titles, but Woolcott was strictly local and he didn’t have a hope the book would ever make him rich. Micah Mortimer is a variation on Aaron Woolcott of Tyler’s A Beginner’s Goodbye.
It is Tyler’s hat tip to that antecedent novel and character who is the publisher of Woolcott Publishing. By the way, the firm’s best seller is Why I Have Decided to Go On Living. Indeed, the sort of book Micah might have read!
His girlfriend, if you want to call her that as we’re talking about people in their 40’s, Cass, is an elementary school teacher, and they’ve lived together on and off for more than three years. One can understand that a person such as Micah Mortimer is comfortable with an arrangement that seems to be going nowhere, but Cass? As Tyler comments, they had reached the stage where things had more or less solidified: compromises arrive at, incompatibilities adjusted to, minor quirks overlooked. They had it down to a system, you could say.
Part of his routine is a run in the morning. All of the action in the novel is in the familiar territory of most of Tyler’s novels, Baltimore, although I have come to call her sense of place, ”Tylerville.” He follows the same path on those runs, out so early in the morning that there is no one around. He likes it like that and finally people begin to emerge by the time he’s heading home. It is on such a run, early in the novel, that Tyler departs into the realm of magic realism, from which the novel derives its title and thus endemic to the theme. His vision is not very good so things take on different appearances: On the homeward stretch this morning, he made his usual mistake of imagining for a second that a certain fire hydrant, faded to the pinkish color of an aged clay flowerpot, was a child or a very short grown-up. There was something about the rounded top of it, emerging bit by bit as he descended a slope toward an intersection. Why! He always thought to himself. What was that little redhead doing by the side of the road? Because even though he knew by now that it was only a hydrant, still, for one fleeting instant he had the same delusion all over again, every single morning.
Indeed, why that vision, and why does he have dreams while he sleeps of a baby beckoning to him in supermarket?
Suddenly, the first complication in the novel arises, Micah finding a young man sitting on his step, Brink Adams. He is the son of a former girlfriend, Lorna Bartell, from college. He thinks Micah might be his father. Seeing Brink, who is really not his son, he remembers that dream: The image rose up in his mind of the baby in the supermarket, watching him so expectantly. It occurred to him, not for the first time, that prophetic dreams were not much use if their meaning emerged only in hindsight.
He feels, however, a certain responsibility towards Brink and allows him to stay overnight, Micah urging him to call his mother. He does not. So Micah says call or leave and leave he does.. Micah immediately suffers regret: He had handled this all wrong, he realized. But even given a second chance, he wasn’t sure what he’d do differently. Tyler cuts her protagonist some slack. She does love her characters, even those who might not act on a second chance.
Allowing Brink to stay over, while Cass was having apartment house difficulties, creates the next complication, her sudden decision to break up with Micah. Cass calls and drops that bombshell because he didn’t offer for her to move in with him while she was having those apartment issues, and instead, briefly took in this stranger, Brink, in the office bedroom. This stuns him, never associating the two. “That never even crossed my mind! I didn’t even know you were willing to move in! Is that what this is about? You all at once think we ought to change the rules?” “No, Micah,” she said. “I know that you are you.” Indeed, a revelatory statement by Cass. He meekly accepts this judgement putting his phone into his pocket and staring out into space. He confesses to himself though that he hated it when women expected you to read their minds.
He remembers when he first met Cass. He was making a tech call at an elementary school where Cass taught. The class was not happy that they had to go to a retirement home to Christmas carol, objecting that the residents “smell bad and the old ladies keep reaching out to us with their clutchy, grabby hands.” And here Tyler shines in her narrative, showing her increasing sensitivity to the matter of aging as she has in her last few novels, as Cass says: "I'd like you to look at this from another angle. Some of those people get to see children only once a year at Christmas, when our school comes to carol. And even the grown-ups they knew are mostly gone. Their parents are gone, their friends are gone, their husbands or wives gone-whole worlds gone. Even their brothers and sisters, often. They remember something that happened when they were, say, nine years old-same age as you all are now-but nobody else alive remembers it too. You don't think that's hard? You'll be singing to a roomful of broken hearts, I tell you. Try thinking of that when you decide you don't want to bother doing it." Ridiculously, Micah had felt touched, although in his own experience most old people were relentlessly cheery.
On the spot he asks her out to the movies. She searched his face for a moment. She seemed to be trying to make up her mind about him…”And I do like going to the movies,” she said. ..”Well, then,” he told her. And he couldn’t keep from grinning. It was her speech to the children that had won him. “A roomful of broken hearts”! He liked that phrase. And so does the reader.
Is it no wonder they then get together? Cass “completes” him. He just doesn’t really know it, yet. But his family does, all his sisters wondering where Cass is at a family gathering, vintage Tyler, everyone talking over everyone else. Tumult, the opposite of Micah’s ordered life. They were really looking forward to Cass’ appearance as much if not more so than brother Micah. They are incredulous that Micah doesn’t grasp the issue. “So, Cass broke up with you because you gave your guest room to the son of an ex-girlfriend that you don’t even see anymore?” This leave him with the thought: he liked his family a lot, but they made him crazy sometimes.
And now Tyler has Micah dancing to a cacophony of complications, guilt over throwing Brink out, guilt about not trying, yet, to find and contact Brink’s mother, Lorna, guilt about not being sensitive to Cass, and feeling berated by his family. He starts first by trying to contact Lorna to let her know her son is safe, tracing her via the Internet and then emailing her.
The next morning he’s out for his daily run, again noticing that that early no one is out, and daydreaming what if a neutron bomb made it permanent? No one for him to deal with. How idyllic that might be? No complications. No effort to live. He runs in a trance. Until, once again, the hydrant which he mistakes for a redhead appears, his giving 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 how his entire life ran in a rut, really. And really they do.
Lorna does not email or call but arrives, finding his address by Googling “computer repair” in Baltimore and found “Tech Hermit…it was what the girls in my dorm used to call you.”…”I guess I’m pretty predictable.” She didn’t disagree.
After discussing the matter of her son with Lorna, she leaves with her contact numbers if Brink shows up again. He goes out on a computer call, but returning to his apartment, the place gave off a kind of hollow sound, it seemed to him. Nobody said “You’re home!” Or “Welcome Back.” He finds some of Cass’ overnight clothes and goes into a reverie about her and her clothes: “The sweater matched her eyes exactly, but when he'd once pointed that out she had said it was the other way around; her eyes matched the sweater. "Whatever color I wear, my eyes just go along with it," she'd told him, and then, nudging him playfully in the ribs, "You should see me when I wear red!" Remembering that now, he smiled.
Maybe red was a premonition all along? Or the red fire hydrant? And the baby dream? Micah’s sister Ada has an opinion on that one: it’s a sign from your subconscious that you’re ready for the next stage of life. But, is he?
Brink indeed returns to Micah’s apartment, agrees to be picked up by his mom and step dad. Micah has filled his obligation. Good man. He and Lorna have a heart to heart about Micah’s opinion that he turns women off, “it’s like all at once they remember somewhere else they’d prefer to be. But in discussing this with his ex-girl friend from college, it begins to dawn on him that even their love was not the perfect one he imagined it to be, and Lorna delivers one of the themes of the novel: “Sometimess..you can think back on your life and almost believe it was laid out for you in advance, like this plain clear path you were destined to take even if it looked like nothing but brambles and stobs at the time.”
With Cass, Lorna and her son gone, Micah is dreaming more, becoming more disheveled and Tyler moves into the novel’s denouement with a gathering momentum as Micah goes through the motions of his Tech Hermit calls, his apartment house responsibilities, with an inner dialog underway which is disturbed only by Tyler making a rare departure to the other reality as he listens to talk radio in the car discussing police violence. It is a brief foray outside the terrarium of Micah’s world as he struggles with his very identity. The last chapter inexorably, powerfully moves him towards a resolution, but is it one in which Tyler pushes him further into damnation or into the light of redemption? As I was reading this suspenseful chapter, I thought it was going decidedly in one direction, and I’ll have to leave it there as it would be a spoiler to reveal my expectations or the reality. It is a remarkable piece of writing.
Tyler never fails to engage and delight. As I said at the onset, she is our very own Jane Austen, but with a modern sensibility, and now that both John Updike (who admired her writing) and Philip Roth are gone she is indisputably one of our leading writers of fiction. Redhead by the Side of the Road is vintage Anne Tyler. Her, now, more than twenty novels a treasure trove of American life observed and deciphered.