How much do I love Anne Tyler's writing? An awful lot. This beautifully crafted tale is, on the surface, so simple. It's the story of Micah Mortimer, a man in his early 40s who works for himself as the "Tech Hermit" and spends his days zooming around north Baltimore in an unflashy Kia coming to the aid of elderly clients grappling with their computers. His life is one of routine; a daily morning run, set days for floor-mopping and vacuuming. He has a girlfriend (although he won't use the word) Cass, although they only tend to see each other at set times. Into this ordered life crashes Brink, a teenager who claims, implausibly as it turns out, that Micah is his father after a long-ago college romance and he wants to move in.Tyler is telling us a story about the fragility of making a real connection with another person, how precious and wondrous it is, and how worth fighting for and protecting. I have developed a strong dislike of the nebulous marketing term "uplit" (which appears on the AI) and is bandied about in relation to all sorts of books. Personally, I find great writing "uplifting", regardless of subject matter, and this short (177pp) masterpiece is the very definition of great writing.
Sensibly – and indeed good sense is one of her happiest qualities – she has no time for the current nonsense about “cultural appropriation” and sees no reason why she shouldn’t write from a man’s point of view. Micah Mortimer doesn’t exist except as she has imagined him. Fiction is fiction, make-believe and invention. Identity is not private property defended by a notice warning that trespassers will be prosecuted. The only question that matters is whether other lives have been well-imagined, not who they belong to. Tyler imagines them very well; end of subject. In her novels there is very little in the way of plot, but there is always a story, and the story is developed in such a way that people are not only revealed in their complexity, but will be changed by events, conversations, shifting relationships with others.
There’s a particularly wonderful scene halfway through the novel when Micah goes for a family lunch, a chaos of noise and people flitting from room to room as food is served over shoulders and conversations shoot up like “geysers”. It’s a showcase of Tyler’s genius in finding humour and humanity in the ordinary.
Her latest novel might not be heavy on plot twists, and the conclusion feels a touch rushed, but is still packed with wit and humanity — a good read to add to your lockdown list, if only for house-cleaning tips.
Tyler’s handling of this slow-motion epiphany is marred by the odd cliché: “open some can of worms”; “bold as brass”. But her slender novel is still appealingly understated and full of insight and sympathy. It is also highly absorbing — partly because of Tyler’s evocative style (when Micah considers his past, he is “visited by a kind of translucent scarf of a memory floating down upon him”), but mostly because of the intimacy with which she depicts the workings of Micah’s heart and mind. Her sensitivity to the ways in which fear and self-deception can stealthily upturn an existence result in a work that makes you want to live more attentively.
Each character is deftly drawn in a few lines; like Brink’s lawyer stepfather, not a bad man, just heavy-handed and impervious to the idea “not every kid can be an instant success”. Or Yolanda, who protects herself from the crushing disappointment of serial dating by focusing on the “pre bit” of what to wear, which, unlike the encounter itself, she can control.
Tyler notes how each of us tries to create, with rules and little self-deceptions, the fragile edifice of a tolerable life. But also that sometimes we must smash it down in order to love.
I think I like Tyler best when she is more crowded and garrulous. One might gently suggest, from an observer normally so acute and precise, that Micah seems much more like an old man, with his pottering and his eyesight problems, than a man in his early 40s. But the novel still has her vividly evocative way with language, rooted in ordinary speech. Micah wears “scuffed brown round-toed shoes that seem humble, like a schoolboy’s shoes”.
Other trademark Tyler traits include quiet humour, emotional intelligence and razor-sharp insight. Micah’s job as a computer technician brings plenty of funny, relatable scenarios: “Old ladies had the easiest problems to fix but the greatest numbers of fractious questions.” His closest friend, meanwhile, seems to be a computerised driving system called Traffic God. They bond over speed limits: “He didn’t hold with the theory that the law allowed a tad bit of wiggle room. If thirty-five miles per hour really meant thirty-eight, they ought to go ahead and say thirty-eight.”
Redhead by the Side of the Road — its title a reference to the tendency of Micah’s ageing eyes to mistake inanimate objects for human beings when he’s out running — is a noticeably compact novel, studded with miniature portraits of other lives. Each of them bears Tyler’s characteristic empathy and brilliance at capturing something essential in only a few brush strokes... Tyler doesn’t cheat, and the result is that her writing here can feel truthful and moving but also slightly underpowered. Still, her novels are always absorbing, and her emotional generosity — the way she reveals in tiny flashes the extent to which we really know what we’re attempting to hide from ourselves — is never less than impressive. And at the present time, a book that weighs our ability to insulate and isolate ourselves against disaster alongside the endurance of small kindnesses is not a bad one to have to hand.
Redhead by the Side of the Roadis slighter and more bittersweet than some of her recent novels but, like all her work, it tenderly opens an ordinary life and shows us the universal truths hidden inside... As always, her characteristically unpretentious, even folksy style belies both the intricacy of her work and its quiet profundity. Her quirkily inconsequential dialogue is never inconsequential. It is perhaps why some critics continue to underestimate her. As always, she makes it look easy... Tyler’s gift, amply in evidence in Redhead by the Side of the Road, is not only to create characters that struggle valiantly towards goodness. It is to leave her readers wanting to do the same.
Micah is closed off; he wants to close himself off because reality is ‘unspeakably sad’. He dreams of escape and longs to inhabit other lives. But no one releases him, apart from Tyler, who supplies him with a tenuously happy ending. This is a relief. In our troubling times, now that reality has been hacked by a dystopian novelist, what could be nicer than sifting through novels by Anne Tyler? This isn’t her greatest novel, but it’s still a pleasure to read. It’s fractured, sad, strange and beautiful at the same time – like unreal real life.
Tyler rarely disappoints, but this is her best novel in some time – slender, unassuming, almost cautious in places, yet so very finely and energetically tuned, so apparently relaxed, almost flippantly so, but actually supremely sophisticated. Slippery, too. It appears at first sight to be a novel about a good and well-meaning man – a man who, as Micah brokenly tells his girlfriend, set out to “make no mistakes at all”. But in fact it’s a tale of someone who has opted out, who has doggedly failed to engage, who’s made a habit of walking away from almost everything.
What ensues propels the novel entertainingly and shrewdly to a cheering conclusion. But, true to Tyler’s priorities, it’s the wealth of brilliantly caught characters that’s her book’s greatest appeal. Micah’s visits to clients enable her to fill her pages with vivid cameos of a diversity of people. The preppy runaway, Brink, disgruntled at having been suspended for plagiarising a term paper (ironically on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance), is captured with spot-on exactness.