For those of you not familiar with Anne Tyler, Redhead by the Side of the Road is her 23rd novel. She is a former Pulitzer Prize winner, has been shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and was a participant in the Hogarth Shakespeare project which also saw the likes of Margaret Atwood, Howard Jacobsen, and Tracy Chevalier tackle modern interpretations of the bard’s best known works. Tyler is an expert at fictionalising the life of middle class American families, and Redhead by the Side of the Road proves no exception.
The novel follows Micah Mortimer, a forty-something year old man who is meticulously tidy, runs his own tech support company called Tech Hermit, and is also the superintendent of his apartment building. He spends his days alternatively helping his clients with a range of computer problems (from working out how to switch the modem off and on again, to blocking porn websites on the laptops of unsuspecting teenagers), fixing things in the apartments of his neighbours (and sending passive aggressive emails about proper use of the recycling bins), and spending time with his school teacher woman friend, Cassie.
Micah at first seems well-adjusted and mature, but as the novel progresses, and through a series of interactions with others, it soon becomes clear that his emotional growth has been somewhat stunted. When the son of his college girlfriend appears on his doorstep wondering if Micah might be his real father, Micah begins to question his relationships with the people around him and the reader begins to question if Micah is really the ‘good guy’ and the victim of circumstance he believes himself to be.
This is a short novel, and one which delves into the complexities of a loveable and completely clueless character. Micah’s inability to understand the points of view of others seems to be a coping mechanism of sorts. While most of the time it doesn’t impinge on his daily life much, when it comes to relationships– and to his relationship with Cass– it may go a long way towards explaining why Micah is in his forties and still single and living in a basement apartment.
Tyler cleverly uses a family dinner to implant an understanding of his backstory and the dynamic between Micah and his three sisters without resorting to flashbacks or having to explain it all to us. Understanding Micah’s place in the family structure, where he is the youngest and the only boy, helps enable the reader to form a complex portrait of a simple man.
There are moments of lightness and humour in this novel; such as a couple of interactions between Micah and his lonely neighbour, who is experimenting with online dating and growing more and more despondent at the lack of choice out there. Micah’s cluelessness only serves to amp up the humour.
There are also moments of pathos, as with the side plot involving an elderly neighbour suffering from cancer. All in all, Tyler simply and beautifully creates a short vignette of the moment an American man realises he may have made a few wrong assumptions about his life and what is important in it.
If you haven’t discovered Anne Tyler yet, Redhead by the Side of the Road is a lovely place to start.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road is available now through Chatto & Windus.
Order you copy from Booktopia HERE.