Anne Tyler has been accused of writing the same book over and over again. It’s a charge with which she cheerfully agrees and, if they’re all like this one, frankly who cares?
Tyler’s speciality is the everyday, the run-of-the-mill, the small world. In another writer’s hands this could be stultifyingly boring. In Tyler’s it becomes fascinating. “You have to wonder what goes through the mind of such a man,” she says of her latest protagonist. And you really do.
Redhead by the Side of the Road is the story of a few weeks in the life of Micah Mortimer, a life of mind-boggling narrowness. He has a routine carved in stone from his 7.15 run to his daily household tasks (kitchen day, floor mopping day, cupboard cleaning day). He is part odd-job man in the block where he lives rent-free in the basement, part the only employee of his “Tech Hermit” service, fixing the problems of the computer unsavvy of Baltimore.
If you think he sounds like a bit of a loser, you’re not alone. Micah thinks the same, especially as events – by his standards – start to crowd in on him, making him question his life for perhaps the first time. For a start, he’s concerned about his failure with women, particularly after his girlfriend of three years, Cass, dumps him. Why do they all do it? Cass said it was because he didn’t offer her a place to stay when she thought she was going to lose her flat. Joking she could always sleep in her car was the last straw.
Then there’s Brink, the eighteen-year-old son of Micah’s first girlfriend who turns up on his doorstep, wondering if Micah might be his father. He tells Brink to phone his mother or leave. Brink leaves. Emotional intelligence? Not so much.
Tyler, though, doesn’t make these judgments. She lets Micah and his friends and family speak for themselves, revealing the hearts and minds of even the most minor characters in a few deft brushstrokes. She offers the quietest, most patient observation of them all and leaves Micah to open a door, seemingly all on his own. She gives her “narrow and limited man” a way out of his self-imposed lockdown. A glimmer of hope for us all, these days.
Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler is released by Penguin and is available online from all good stockists. For more information about the book, please visit www.penguin.co.uk.