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“On the homeward stretch [of his run] this morning, he made his usual mistake of imagining for a second that a certain fire hydrant, faded to the pinkish color of an aged clay flowerpot, was a child or a very short grown-up.  There was something about the rounded top of it….What was that little redhead doing by the side of the road?”

cover redhead side roadMicah Mortimer, the main character of Anne Tyler’s latest novel, her twenty-third, could not be more ordinary, at least on the surface, yet Anne Tyler makes his story one that will keep even jaded readers intrigued and involved in his unexciting life. 

Already forty-three, he has had his share of girlfriends, and now, “women friends,” since he refuses to refer to women over thirty as “girls.”  None of his relationships have evolved into anything permanent, however, nor has he expected them to.  “He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.”  He does his regular morning run in his Govans neighborhood of Baltimore wearing ordinary sneakers, knee-length denim cutoffs, and tee-shirt – nothing fancy.  When he returns to his apartment, he  showers, cleans up the already tidy apartment, takes out trash, if it is trash day, and checks his phone to see if he has any new clients for his modest computer tech business, “Tech Hermit.” If he has to drive to a client’s house, he obeys every traffic rule, convinced that the Traffic God approves and will credit his good behavior. A phone call from his woman friend of the past three years, Cassia Slade, suggests some new possibilities for Micah, when she tells him that she might be evicted from her apartment and will have no place to live, but her implied suggestion goes over his head.  Instead of making the obvious offer to her, he assures her that she will surely find another place.

Micah lived in the Govans section of Baltimore and tended an apartment building there.

Micah lived in the Govans section of Baltimore and tended an apartment building there.

Author Anne Tyler, well known for her ability to create sympathetic characters, manages to bring even the sometimes frustratingly dull Micah Mortimer to life, despite his lack of ambition, lack of imagination, and complete disinterest in change.  His relationship with Cass, which, understandably, begins to wane as a result of his lack of empathy with her regarding her living arrangements, suggests that he accepts her frustration as just another part of his life.  The only clues the reader gets that this might affect him more deeply in some way is through his dreams.  The night after his phone call with Cass, he dreams he finds a baby in a supermarket aisle, “sitting erect on the floor in front of the breakfast cereals and wearing nothing but a diaper.”  When he wakes, he is still trying to figure out what to do with the baby.  “Take it to Lost and Found, he supposed, but this meant picking it up, and he worried it would start crying,” thereby leading the baby’s parents to leap to incorrect conclusions about Micah himself.  When he is not wearing his glasses, his limited imagination also fills gaps in his reality, leading to the image in the opening quotation of this review, that a fire hydrant is a child, another suggestion that somehow, somewhere, in Micah’s subconscious is a potential parent trying to find a child.

Brink spend much of a day reading about the Baltimore Oriole at the local library.

Brink spent much of a day reading about the Baltimore Orioles at the local library.

The arrival of Brink Bartell Adams, a first semester freshman in college, on his doorstep one morning after Micah finishes his run, comes as a total surprise.  Brink, the son of Lorna Bartell, a girlfriend from his distant past, is a freshman in college.  He has found Micah’s photo in a shoebox in his family’s house, and is totally convinced that Micah must be his father.  “I don’t belong in that family,” Brink says of his mother and stepfather. “I’m a, like, misfit.  There’s so…I’m more like you.”  Brink does not know who his father is, and Micah is certain that he cannot be the father, but Lorna, Brink’s mother, is not giving out any information.  Brink, for his part, provides no information on why he is out of college after just a week or so of being in residence there.  Meanwhile, Micah, having had dreams of parenthood, without any real longings for it, suddenly feels sorry for Brink, but he does not “bite” on the subject of fatherhood, and Brink leaves.  When Brink returns, after spending the next day at the library reading about the Baltimore Orioles, Micah asks if he would like to have supper and spend the night.  He stays to meet Cass and sleep at Micah’s, during which Micah tries to persuade him to call his mother, though he does not insist.

An elementary school playground calls up different images for Micah

Micah remembers an elementary school playground, which he visited near the end of the book, very differently from what we see here.

Micah’s family and his relationships with his several sisters, their husbands, children, and parents add depth to the picture of Micah, as the family meets in celebration of the upcoming marriage of one of his nephews and his future bride, both youngsters in their early twenties with little idea of the future and its responsibilities, but great hopes.  Each family member is trying to connect with Micah on some level, and all are concerned for him.  Meanwhile, the whole question of Brink’s parenthood becomes more complicated as Brink’s relationships with his stepfather and mother, in particular, are further exposed.  A call for computer tech help the next day leads to Micah’s introduction to a new person, someone new to town, and as they joke around and imply a different kind of life, Micah is also trying to deal with the problems with Cass and any future they might have.  As she has said, “I’m just saying that the you that you are might not be the right you for me.”

Author Anne Tyler

Author Anne Tyler

The author inserts herself into the final chapter, saying of Micah that “You have to wonder what goes through the mind of such a man.  Such a narrow and limited man; so closed off.  He has nothing to look forward to, nothing to to daydream about.”  The next morning, when Micah gets up and does his morning run, as usual, however, he dreams once again, giving the lie to what the author has just said about his having nothing to daydream about, and, upon returning home, he chooses to ignore parts of his usual schedule. Out driving (and obeying the Traffic God) later that morning, he sees an elementary school playground, and the out-of-date details he mentions show how little he actually notices about the real world around him.  His past experiences affect his view of the present, and he has a long way to go if he is to see life as it really is. Anne Tyler has created the story of a boring, unimaginative stick-in-the-mud and turned it into a charming and enlightening story of a man who just may have a chance at real life after all.  If it is not too late.

Photos.  The Govans sign is from the Govan’s Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com

One of the books about the Orioles which Brink read for fun might have been this one of Orioles history.  https://www.amazon.com/

Late in the novel, Micah stops to visit an elementary schoolyard, for which he retains very different memories.  https://whyy.org

The author’s photo appears in the Boston Globe:  https://www.bostonglobe.com/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Psychological study, United States, US Regional
Written by: Anne Tyler
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 04/07/2020
ISBN: 978-0525658412
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

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