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Anne Tyler, one of the best novelists currently working in the United States, has published 23 novels. Among her books set in Baltimore are the Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons and her newly published novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road. This new novel’s pitch-perfect portrait of a mildly obsessive compulsive person makes clear that Tyler is now, as she has long been, at the height of her powers.
Tyler writes about ordinary people facing common dilemmas—a relationship ending, a job not working out, the day-to-day reality that their lives are going nowhere, and the joy of small things. She casually weaves sharp insights into these portraits. For instance, Micah Mortimer in this new novel off-handedly observes about his past girlfriends: “They start giving me these sideways kinds of glances. They start acting kind of distracted. It’s like all at once they remember somewhere else they’d prefer to be.”
Micah is a fussbudget and something of a failure, as the pleasantly omniscient narrator does not hesitate to inform us, with details to back up this assessment. “When Micah was behind the wheel he liked to pretend he was being evaluated by an all-seeing surveillance system. Traffic God, he called it. Traffic God was operated by a fleet of men in shirtsleeves and green visors who frequently commented to one another on the perfection of Micah’s driving.” Micah runs a one-man computer repair company, appropriately called Tech Hermit, and the novel follows him from job to job, to customers as modest and eccentric as he is. Redhead by the Side of the Road also chronicles his relationship with Cass, a fourth grade teacher, and its many crossed signals.
This novel contrasts Micah with his family: his four impetuous sisters, life-long waitresses, their husbands and children. Micah is the oddity here, a perfectionist in an environment of permanent chaos. “Conversations in this family didn’t so much flow as spring up in bursts here and there like geysers and she wasn’t used to this pursuit of a single subject.” Micah apologizes for being finicky, by saying anyone would be “if you’d been reared in a household where the cat slept in the roasting pan.” Micah likes order and predictability. He has regular routines, from his morning run to his daily housework to his spotty business. That seems like all he has.
His relationship with Cass, however, means more to him than he knows, and the arc of this discovery is well plotted. At first he appears to take her for granted, treating their affair with an almost distant casualness. But over time he reflects on his previous relationships, and he concludes he blew them all, leading him into a rather negative self image through casual thoughts on identity theft: “Anyhow, he very nearly adds, there are lots of worse things than losing your identity. Right now he almost feels that losing his own identity would be a plus.”
This is a novel about how people sabotage themselves, little by little, every day. It’s also a story about contracting horizons, about getting old rather than growing up. As such, this novel has a wistful quality, like Breathing Lessons, where people adjust to their losses and diminished circumstances and admit that they’re lonely. The narrator of this new novel tells us that Micah is a narrow, limited, and closed-off man. But Micah surprises us; maybe he even surprises his creator, describing himself near the end as “a roomful of broken hearts.”