Review by Ann
Maybe as much as twenty years ago I remember a librarian colleague at the University where I was then working saying to me, “Read Anne Tyler”. Most of my time then was given over to reading children’s literature to support one of the courses that I was teaching, but since my retirement I have started to catch up with Tyler’s work and, while I still have some of her back catalogue to read, I have made a point of getting hold of a copy of each new publication as it appeared. Inevitably, some have been better than others, but none have truly disappointed me and her latest, Redhead By The Side Of The Road, to my mind at least, is one of her very best.
In a recent interview, Tyler commented that she wasn’t very interested in plot, that it got in the way of her real concern which is the development of character, and it is definitely true that Redhead By The Side Of The Road is far more character driven than it is in any way led by its storyline. Central to the narrative is Micah Mortimer, in his forties and living in the basement of an apartment block where he acts as super in between running a small scale business solving other people’s computer problems. At no point does Tyler mention the fact that Micah has Aspergers. Well, maybe it takes one to know one, but I can’t imagine that anybody would have any difficulty in recognising his personality type. He had a system she comments. I’ll say he has a system – for everything, from how he organises his drawers to the days of the week when he mops the floor or cleans the kitchen. And, his system comes first because his system is predictable, it doesn’t ask him to take account of how other people might be feeling, to accept the fact that they may behave in ways that can’t be predicted, perhaps most tellingly to understand that what somebody says and does on the surface may not be a true reflection of what they are actually feeling or expecting from him.
Perhaps Micah’s obsessive tidiness and organisation is a reaction to the family in which he grew up. The youngest child and, as far as I can gather, the only boy, his sisters, their husbands and the ever-growing brood of children and grandchildren live in a type of chaos that I have to say fills me, personally, with horror. Attending an engagement party for one of his nephews, Micah sits down at a table which
itself was bare, except for a portable Ping-Pong net that had been stretched across the centre for the past couple of years or so – long enough, at any rate, so that everyone had stopped seeing it.
I am still shuddering!
But, Micah’s sisters clearly love him and would dearly like to see him married with a family of his own; however, his personality proves to be most obstructive when it comes to forming friendships with women. When we first meet him he’s in a relationship with Grade 4 teacher, Cassia Slade, but we watch as his inability to read the subtext in what she is telling him about her altercation with her landlady leads to the breakdown of the friendship. (I was going to put “romance” but it really isn’t a word I can use in respect of Micah; it’s so totally foreign to his nature.) The break-up with Cassie is accelerated by the arrival in his life of Brink, the freshman son of his one-time college girlfriend, Laura. Brink, born out of wedlock and with no knowledge of who is father is, has elected Micah to the position. Simply by virtue of being a teenager, Brink brings chaos to Micah’s life and home, not least because he is hotly pursued both by his mother, his stepfather, Roger and the welter of emotions generated by his departure. But, it is Roger who suddenly paints Micah’s existence in a completely different light. When Brink admits that he thought Micah might be his father because they appear to have some traits in common, Roger responds:
with a man who earns his own living…Who appears to be self-sufficient. Who works very hard, I assume, and expect no handouts…Sorry, son…but I fail to see the resemblance.
Everything that Roger says about Micah is true, but it is also true that he has allowed his obsession with order and with systems to stand in the way of developing relationships with those outside his own family. It is not that he doesn’t care about other people. His concern for those who live in the apartment block is very apparent, but then they don’t impinge upon his personal life. Recognising that the life he has is not the life he wants, in a final act of true courage, he sets out to try and mend some broken bridges. Whether or not he succeeds you will have to find out for yourself, and please do, because this is truly an excellent piece of writing that should be enjoyed by as many as possible.
Ann blogs at Café Society, where this post first appeared.
Anne Tyler, Redhead by the Side of the Road (Chatto & Windus, 2020). 978-1784743475, 192pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)