Fiction – paperback; Chatto & Windus; 178 pages; 2020.
Anne Tyler’s latest novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road, is classic Anne Tyler: absorbing, perceptive and warm-hearted, but underpinned by a current of pathos.
It tells the story of Micah Mortimer, a 41-year-old man, who does his best to live a quiet, understated life in which he never puts a foot wrong.
He has a “woman friend”, Cass, who teaches fourth grade, but they live in separate apartments and lead fairly separate lives, only catching up on a semi-regular basis for meals, overnight stays and weekend outings.
Day-to-day, he follows a relatively regimented schedule — going for a run at 7.15am every morning, for instance, and cleaning his basement flat according to a rigid routine.
He makes his living as a computer technician, running his own business called TECH HERMIT, where he makes home visits to sort people’s computer and printer issues out. He also moonlights as the super at the apartment building in which he lives.
He is cordial and friendly to people, but he’s not social and has no male friends. But this is his life and he has no cause to examine it.
Of course, this wouldn’t be an Anne Tyler novel without something extraordinary happening to an ordinary person, throwing things into disarray and causing characters to reassess their situations. In Micah’s case, two things happen: an 18-year-old preppy-looking kid turns up on his doorstep claiming Micah is his father, and his girlfriend Cass breaks off their relationship because he does little to help her when she fears she might become homeless. Both events test Micah’s view of himself — and his life.
As a character-driven novel, this is a perceptive look at a seemingly happy middle-aged man whose life is thrown off kilter. For all his stability and level-headedness, you only have to scratch the surface to realise that Micah is not a particularly confident person. He might not be able to control how other people behave, so he has spent his life focusing on the things he can control — making sure his house is spotlessly clean, doing a job that doesn’t challenge him too much, keeping Cass at arm’s length because if he makes a real commitment he could potentially get hurt.
Micah, however, doesn’t have enough self-awareness to realise that this is what he does. He’s puzzled when he turns up to a family gathering — he is the youngest of four children — and finds his sisters and in-laws taking the mickey out of him. When he announces that he and Cassie have broken up, they urge him to try to get her back.
“Tell her you’ll change your ways,” Phil advised him.
“Change what ways?” Micah asked.
This made them all start laughing; he didn’t know why. […]
“Uncle Mickey’s kind of … finicky.”
“I am not finicky,” Micah said.
“What day is it today, Micah?” Suze’s husband called from the foyer doorway. […]
“What do you mean, what day? It’s Thursday.”
“Is it vacuuming day? Is it dusting day? Is it scrub-the-keyboards-with-a-Q-tip day?”
“Oh, Dave, leave him alone,” Suze said.
“He doesn’t mind! Is it window-washing day?”
“Well,” Micah said grudgingly. “It’s kitchen day, as it happens.”
“Kitchen day! Ha! Your kitchen has a day all its own?”
“And what does that involve, exactly?” […]
“On kitchen day I clean the counters and the appliances and such. And one complete cabinet.”
They laughed again, and Micah gave an exaggerated scowl. He wasn’t sure why he played along with them like this. (Even encouraged them, some might say.)
This is a novel about missteps and misperceptions to the point of almost farce. Even the novel’s title, which comes from short-sighted Micah mistaking a fire hydrant as a “redhead by the side of the road”, suggests a farcical element to his life.
There are a lot of misunderstandings too, owing largely to lack of communication, or people jumping to conclusions. For instance, Cass thinks that Micah deliberately has someone stay over in his guest room so that he won’t have to invite her to move in when she’s evicted. But it never even occurs to him that he should ease her fears of homelessness by offering her to move in with him.
By the same token, Cass lacks the directness to say what she feels, which would help resolve the issue.
Comic and heartfelt
Redhead by the Side of the Road is a very humane book, brimming with comic moments and heartfelt deeds. It’s cosy without being cloying, moving without being sentimental, and life-affirming without being moralistic.
I adored it, and for all of Micah’s annoying habits and lack of spontaneity, I loved spending time in his company. It only makes me want to work my way through Anne Tyler’s backlist — most of which I’ve already read pre-blog.