Redhead by the Side of the Road, by Anne Tyler, Vintage, £14.99, 192 pp, ISBN: 087-1784743482
“You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micha Mortimer. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.”
An unusual, for Tyler, omniscient narrator opens the story or Micah Mortimer, a man for our times, self-isolating, a “tech hermit” by trade (fixing computers, mainly for older people) working as a janitor in his basement apartment for free rent. He has a woman friend, Cass, (“He refused to call anyone in their late thirties ‘a girlfriend’.”) They lead fairly separate lives. Nobody knows if he has family.
Anne Tyler’s twenty-third novel is her shortest to date, a concerto rather than a symphony she conceded in a rare interview on RTE’s Arena. The book takes up only a week and a day in the life of the main character, Micah Mortimer. She says that is why the book is so short, yet her Pulitizer Prize -novel Breathing Lessons takes only one day in the life of Maggie and Ira Moran but shows an entire married life. The brevity of her recent novel allows for the pleasure of rereading it immediately.
She always wanted to write a large book, an Anna Karenina, a totally different kind of book, but then “each one is the same thing all over again”. A student of Russian literature in her Columbia University days, her books resemble the great Russian novel only in its opening line: “All happy families are the same, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Family life with all its chaos is at the heart of all Tyler’s novels of ordinary life, normal people living normal lives. Tyler was influenced by reading the Southern writer Eudora Welty when she was fourteen. Welty gave her the permission to write about ordinary people “and how very small things are often larger than the larger things”.
Micah Mortimer has more than a family resemblance to Macon Leary from The Accidental Tourist, with his travel books advising how to avoid contact and a family so orderly they alphabetise their condiments. Micah has a day for everything: Friday is vacuuming day, Monday floor mopping etc, and a day for each janitor chore, bins, recycling, leaves and snow in the seasons of Baltimore, where all of Tyler’s novels have been based for over fifty years. Tyler enjoys equal readership by both men and women. Her often vexed but sympathetic male characters are written from her experience of living with good men in her life, three brothers and her husband in a happy marriage.
Two unusual events happen in Micah’s otherwise routine life. He dreams he finds a baby in a supermarket aisle. That same day a young man, Brink Adams, one of Tyler’s preppy schoolboy types, appears at his apartment with the mistaken idea that Micah could be his unknown biological father. Micah once dated his religious mother, Lorna, but they never had sex. At the same time, Cass phones afraid she is about to be evicted from her apartment because her landlord has discovered she has a cat. Worried that she will be homeless, she is angry when she comes to dinner to discover that Micah has given a bed for the night to the unknown Brink ‑ she believes to prevent her from moving in. This is a typical Tyler misunderstanding that leads to Cass breaking up with Micah, all of whose relationships seem to end with women losing interest in him.
The title of the book comes from Micha’s tendency to give inanimate objects human form: a fire hydrant becomes a Red Head on his daily run. He mistakes a newspaper box for a child in a bulky jacket. Micah’s myopia, his mistaken view of life and women is repeated, though he set out to make no mistakes in life. His inability to see clearly the relationships in his life have led to the rut he is in.
Sometimes when he was dealing with people, he felt like he was operating those shovel things where you tried to scoop up a prize but the controls were too unwieldy and you worked at a great remove.
An engagement party for a nephew introduces us to the fact that Micah does have a family ‑ four chatty sisters, brothers-in-laws, children, grandchildren all gathered in a screwball comedy scene of tumult. As the youngest of this chaotic but loving family, Micah’s near spectrum orderliness is a reaction to his family. Boundaries, routines, rules: (“I’m not saying I had a hard childhood, reared in a household where the cat slept in a roasting pan”) I’m just saying, when you grow up in that kind of chaos you vow to do things differently once you’re on your own.”
Micah thinks social contact is not important, but through the short novel of sheltering in place, he discovers that it was more important than he thought.
Though hardly referred to again, Micah’s dream of a baby suggests some unknown longing at forty-three to have connection, at the same time that fairy-tale-like, his mistaken “son” appears at his apartment. Tyler often weaves fairy tale motifs into her otherwise realistic narratives.
Near the end of the book, the narrator enters again. “You have to wonder what goes through the mind of such a man. Such a narrow and limited man; so closed off. He has nothing to look forward to, nothing to daydream about.” Micah does though by the end seem to have found some new way of seeing beyond his inanimate objects.
Tyler’s often “happy endings” are not sentimental, but a kind of wish fulfilment. Her Normal People are in fact quite extraordinary, humane and unforgettable.
Brenna Katz Clarke is former head of English at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin.