Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler, Redhead on the Side of the Road (Chatto & Windus: 2020, 9781784743475)

Meet Micah Mortimer, a Baltimore middle-aged man, caretaker of his building, and founder and single employee of Tech Hermit, a tech help business. He follows a rigid routine which includes running (in cutoffs or jeans) every morning and performing meticulously scheduled chores. He’s an oddball, alright. His three-year-old relationship with Cass follows a similarly strict structure, but a miscommunication creates tension in the relationship and, together with the appearance of a teenager claiming to be Micah’s son, his routine is disturbed, and we’ve got ourselves a story.

Illustration by Wilmar Santos

A lot of time is spent early on showing us that “Micah prided himself on his housekeeping.” Like, a lot. Tyler really makes sure we get it. He even fantasises about being praised by a Traffic God as he drives, proud to do it impeccably. So I struggled with the first third of the novel; it felt like it was dragging itself across the floor, gasping for breath. And then it finds it – Micah starts to realise that he is not as happy as he imagined; that he may in fact be quite dissatisfied with some aspects of his life. But how could that be? He does everything correctly! His inner conflict starts to get interesting, and so does the way Anne Tyler writes quiet moments of frustration and confusion. This works because that’s real life: most people’s first reaction to disappointment or dissatisfaction is not to immediately put the world to rights, confront whoever gets in their way or to ask or answer meaningful questions.

The initial floundering of the story is easily forgiven once we see more interaction between Micah and his family, girlfriend and the teenage boy and his parents. The rest of the cast is much louder than Micah, and his struggle to deal with big personalities draws out the reader’s sympathy for the protagonist. This story reminded me faintly of Nabokov’s (more poignant) Pnin – a lonely man who despite his good intentions lacks ease and grace in his social interactions. But he is a nice guy, and he tries.

Though this novel is a gentle and compassionate portrait of an Everyman and mostly steers clear of controversy or politics, you can’t ignore Micah’s archaic views of femininity. He likes women matronly and discreet, and admires what he thinks is their natural talent for order: “Women kept the world running, really. (There was a definite difference between ‘running the world’ and ‘keeping it running.’)” I can’t be sure why Tyler wrote him this way. Micah is not even remotely aware his beliefs are toxic and outdated. But besides being overtly critical of women, he is too mild-mannered to actually express his opinions and cause any direct offence. His beliefs harm his relationships in the long run but bad break-ups happen every day for countless reasons. Maybe this is just a realistic portrayal of the Everyman – misogynism is rampant and both genders often keep it to themselves.

Would I recommend this novel? I would not not recommend it, but beware that this is a slow burn and the pay-off is there but only if you appreciate that this book is about the unremarkable side of life. It is made up of a lot of quiet self-denial, slow realisations and small acts of great bravery.  

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