"Readhead by the Side of the Road"

By Anne Tyler, Knopf, 178 pages, $26.95

Anne Tyler’s new novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road, is either wholly irrelevant or just what we need — or possibly both. Slight and slightly charming, it’s like the cherry Jell-O that Mom serves when you’re feeling under the weather. Not much of a meal, perhaps, but who could handle more now?

The milquetoast protagonist is Micah Mortimer, “a tall, bony man in his early forties with not-so-good posture.” He lives in a basement apartment in Baltimore, which over the course of more than 20 novels has become Tyler’s Yoknapatawpha. Gilded with a patina of quirkiness, Micah is a self-employed computer fix-it guy. Tellingly, he calls himself the Tech Hermit. He repairs elderly folks’ PCs, sometimes by turning them off and turning them back on.

At the opening, Tyler says, “You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer,” but she doesn’t wonder very hard. “He keeps to himself,” she says. “His routine is etched in stone.” He rises, runs, eats breakfast, and answers a few calls. Monday is trash night. “Micah prided himself on his housekeeping.”

He may not have a pulse, but he does have a girlfriend. “She was matronly,” Tyler writes, “which Micah found kind of a turn-on.” That marks the erotic peak of this novel. “He and Cass had been together for three years or so, and they had reached the stage where things had more or less solidified: compromises arrived at, incompatibilities adjusted to, minor quirks overlooked. They had it down to a system.” Or so Micah assumes. In the first chapter, Cass fears she’s about to be evicted from her apartment. When Micah reacts with insufficient sympathy, she breaks up with him.

I have switched dry cleaners with more drama.

Of course, there’s also a sweet and somewhat amusing family in this novel, and of course, they have sweet and somewhat amusing rituals involving food. “The table itself was bare,” Tyler writes, “except for a portable Ping Pong net that had been stretched across the center.” If you’ve read and adored as many of Tyler’s novels as I have, such idiosyncrasies convey all the reassuring warmth of an old hymn.

Micah’s four sisters — all lifelong waitresses — pester him to get Cass back, lest he “end up a crusty old bachelor,” but he resists their efforts. Still, the minor disruptions to Micah’s orderly life are just beginning. A preppy young man named Brink shows up at the door. He’s run away from college and his parents. “I don’t belong in that family,” Brink tells Micah. “I’m a, like, misfit. They’re all so ... I’m more like you.” Having found some old photos from his mother’s college years, Brink is convinced that Micah must be his real father. Alas, the calendar won’t support that conclusion and neither, I bet, would Micah’s testosterone levels.

From these small complications, Tyler spins a small story about a man perplexed by the tepid state of his life. “He had no one,” he realizes. “His entire life ran in a rut.” But maybe, he thinks, he just doesn’t want all the “fuss and bother” of being close to someone.

There is nothing necessarily objectionable about a novel focused on “such a narrow and limited man,” as Tyler calls Micah. Writers as diverse as Sinclair Lewis and Anita Brookner have found profound comedy and pathos in the lives of apparently dull people. But in this case, the mold growing on Micah’s airless character seems to have spread to the narration itself. These characters are a series of moderately eccentric poses presented without much wit or psychological insight. (It doesn’t help that Micah sometimes inexplicably affects the manner of a 1950s TV actress: “Lord forbid,” he says at one point. “That must have been a passing fancy.”)

Although the real world exists in this novel, it’s safely off to the side. Here, sadness is possible, even loneliness, but the bumper guards are up: No one risks slipping into despair or, for that matter, tasting anything like elation. The movie adaptation should be filmed entirely in shades of beige.

Tyler’s best novels are so wonderful that they’ve tended to eclipse her short stories, but that would have been a more effective form for Redhead by the Side of the Road. Tightly compressed, Micah’s gentle quest for a better life would feel more buoyant — and this novel’s lovely final page wouldn’t feel so needlessly delayed. 

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