The Odd Man Out

Over the years, American short story writer, novelist, and literary critic Anne Tyler has regaled the general reading public with her subtle but powerful and imaginative storytelling. In over twenty literary works, she has earned several accolades which was capped by a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction victory for her eleventh novel, Breathing Lessons. It was also named by Time Magazine as the 1989 “Book of the Year”. Several of her works have been longlisted, shortlisted, or nominated for various literary awards. Tyler certainly has crafted an extensive and intricate resume that speaks volumes about her capabilities as a storyteller and writer.

In 2020, Anne Tyler made a literary comeback with her twenty third novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road. In her latest work, Tyler introduced an eccentric character in the person of Micah Mortimer. At the age of 44, Micah is a self-sustaining, highly independent man living on his own in the quaint city of Baltimore. He is also the CEO of his own company, “Tech Hermit”, after he was not able to adjust to the life of being employed, of being servile to someone “higher”. Tech Hermit is a nickname he earned while studying at university because of his fascination with computers.

Micah is a creature of habit. In the orderly basement flat he occupies all by himself, he lives a highly-regimented life. Everything is organized and his daily schedule is already set even before he wakes up. Clients call him whenever they have trouble with their computer. Self-made, he has his own “boss”. Each day means a different task – window-washing day, kitchen day, dusting day, floor-mopping day – depending on what day of the week it is. To work efficiently, he devised his own systems to completing all tasks, even domestic chores, such as washing dishes.

“He’s fully aware that old age will be coming for him too, in time. Health troubles, insurance issues, all with no hope of a pension. Even now, in his forties, he has started to feel slightly less trustful of his own body. He takes more care about how he lifts things, and he gets winded sooner on his runs. A long-ago basketball injury tends to set up a kind of echo in his left ankle during sudden changes in the weather.”

~ Anne Tyler, Redhead by the Side of the Road

Everything that Micah does exasperates those around him, from his neighbors to his clients and to his family. However, Micah is none the wiser on why they were frustrated with him. Belonging to a big and rambunctious family always brimming with life, he easily stands because he seems out of place; he is virtually an outcast. Nevertheless, his family has adapted to his eccentricities and propensities. He stands out during family gatherings as his family make light fun of his quirks. They have accepted him for who he is and they have learned to embrace and accept the things that make him different.

As the story progresses, it was becoming apparent that Micah only needed one thing: an orderly life. He doesn’t like mess and confrontations, both on physical and emotional terms. It was what has led to his regimented life. He has a few friends and he still tries to be accommodating and cordial to everyone. He also has what he calls “lady-friend” named Cassie Slade; he simply refuses to call her his girlfriend but in every sense of the word, she is. Cassie is a teacher and has also charmed Micah’s zealous family. Everything was sailing smoothly, to Micah’s satisfaction.

The crux of Micah’s story begun with a series of unfortunate events. First, Micah got a call from her lady friend, Cassie. She was on the brink of being evicted from her place. This situation was exacerbated when, out of the blue, a teenager named Brink came knocking on his door. He claims to be his son with his college sweetheart. Brink also decided to crash in Micah’s place. Thrown into situations he was never in before, Micah was flustered. He had no contingent plans but he tried to respond in the best possible way he thought he can.

Micah was unsettled by the events that are taking place. The strangeness of the situation he found himself in made him reevaluate his life, see his life in a different lens. It was a eureka moment for him. Whilst weaving a story on this personal crossroad, Tyler also managed to explore the dynamics of family. The novel is also about the various relationships we build with the people around us. Building relationships are complex and complicated but Tyler managed to subtly capture it.

“The thing about old girlfriends is that each one subtracts something from you. You say goodbye to your first great romance and move on to the next, but you find you have less to give to the next. A little chip of you has gone missing; you’re not quite so wholly there in the new relationship. And less there in the one after that, and even less in the one after that one.”

~ Anne Tyler, Redhead by the Side of the Road

Longlisted for the 2020 Man Booker Prize, Redhead by the Side of the Road is a rich character study. It draws an intimate character portrait of an individual who struggles to make a solid connections with his fellows. Nevertheless, Micah is a character one can easily relate to. He dislikes clutter, abides by the rules, and prefers that people speak out what they mean rather than playing around with words. It is about that “odd man” who stands out because of his eccentricity, reminiscent of stories like Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, only subtler . But buried beyond the oddities is a person of depth, capable of warmth and understanding.

Micah’s story was juxtaposed on the quaint scenery of Baltimore, a staple in Tyler’s prose. The power of Tyler’s prose lies in her ability to capture the beauty of ordinary life. Ordinary things and events, such as a fire hydrants or a couple driving home together, are microcosms for riveting narratives. The frenzy of family gatherings provide a well of heartwarming and tender interactions and moments. The narrative relied on human emotions and interactions. Over the course of her literary career, she has proven her uncanny ability of depicting tender spaces.

What brought the story together was Tyler’s storytelling. It was subtle but upbeat. Tyler’s prose is not flashy; she belongs to a cast of writers who write clinically, bereft of aplomb or finesse. It is also the strength of her writing as she dissects the intersections of relationships, family dynamics, and emotions vividly and powerfully. Her prose was equally laidback, insightful and thought-provoking. She chronicled the minutiae of Micah’s life in every sentence but condensed a week of his life in less than 200 pages. Nevertheless, her atmospheric tale is an engrossing and intimate reflection of the main character’s life.

A character-centric novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road was propelled by Micah and his eccentricities. It is a light and accessible read. The story does, however, take some time to fully soar. Readers get to learn more of Micah only when he was out of his comfort zones. Just when the readers are starting to warm up to him and just when the story started to flourish, the story is cut abruptly. It is a rich and dense tale but its full potential was stymied even before it could take off. This is a story that could have used more pages, if only to bask in the laidback beauty of Tyler’s prose.

“Does he ever stop to consider his life? The meaning of it, the point? Does it trouble him to think that he will probably spend his next thirty or forty years this way? Nobody knows. And it’s almost certain nobody’s ever asked him. On a Monday toward the end of October, he was still eating breakfast when his first call came in.”

~ Anne Tyler, Redhead by the Side of the Road

What undid the novel was its conclusion. Tyler perfectly crafted a scenic narrative. With careful and astute attention to every detail, she charted every detail of Micah’s life. In few melancholic pages, the readers are drawn into the story of Micah. In the end, the story gave the same predictable conclusion – the one who ended up adjusting was the person who deviated from the norm. The message was clear: unless he was willing to change and reorganize his life, Micah was going to end up living a miserable life. It was a reversal of the message Tyler tried to build in the first pages of the novel. The conclusion ended up being ephemeral. Its development was also rushed.

It had its blunders but Redhead by the Side of the Road reminded the public about the pleasures drawn from reading about domestic life. Tyler, despite the passage of time, has demonstrated that her mind has not aged one bit for she managed to craft a complex and riveting narrative from an ordinary thing we would ordinarily dismiss. In Micah Mortimer, she created a character readers can relate to. The quaint atmosphere and the scenic storytelling warms readers. Ultimately, the message it tried to deliver in its concluding pages clouded the potential of Micah’s story and even his existence. Everyone is capable of living a happy life, even those who we deem as different.

Ratings

65%

Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 17%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 10%

Anne Tyler is a familiar name that I first encountered while I was browsing the bookshelves of various booksellers during my university days. Back then, I didn’t have a notion on what Pulitzer Prize was but I did realize that it entails a lot. I did enjoy my first Anne Tyler novels – The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons. However, it has been over a decade since I last read one of her works so when I learned that she published a new work in 2020 and that it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, I immediately set my sights on it. Redhead by the Side of the Road contains several staples of a Tyler novel. She did make minor blunders with her rather archaic attempt of incorporating elements of technology but she more than made up for it with her subtle and poignant exploration of family and personal dynamics. The only gripe I had with the novel: I wished that it was longer.

Book Specs

Author: Anne Tyler
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 178
Genre: Domestic Fiction

Synopsis

Micah Mortimer is a creature of habit, content leading a steady, circumscribed life. But one day his woman friend (he refuses to call anyone in her late thirties a “girlfriend”) tells him she’s facing eviction, and then a teenager shows up at Micah’s door claiming to be his son. These surprises, and the ways they throw Micah’s meticulously organized life off-kilter, risk changing him forever. An intimate look into the heart and mind of a man who finds those around him just beyond reach, and a funny, joyful, deeply compassionate story about seeing the world through new eyes, Redhead by the Side of the Road is a triumph, filled with wit and keen observation.

About the Author

Anne Tyler was born on October 25, 1941 in Minneapolis, Minnesota to an industrial chemist father and a social worker mother. She was the eldest of four children.

Tyler’s first education was informal as she and her family lived in a Quaker commune in Celo, North Carolina. Despite her informal education, Tyler was exposed to various literary works as a young girl with Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House being her favorite. She attended public schools in Raleigh, North Carolina. At the age of sixteen, she graduated in high school and subsequently Duke University where she had won a full AB Duke scholarship. She enrolled in Reynold Price’s first creative writing class. At the age of nineteen, she graduated from Duke with a major in Russian literature. She received a fellowship to graduate school in Slavic Studies at Columbia University but left after a year and returned to Duke.

During her undergraduate at Duke, Tyler’s first literary work, a short story titled Laura, was published in the Duke literary journal Archive. At the age of 22, Tyler published her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, in 1964. A year later, she published The Tin Can Tree, her second novel. She took a hiatus between 1965 and 1970 to devote her time to her children. In 1974, she published her first three novels since returning from her hiatus. More success followed with the publication of Morgan’s Passing (1980) as it won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. Her next three novels received more critical success as they were all nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Breathing Lessons (1988) went on to win the prestigious literary prize.

Over the course of her literary career, Tyler has received several literary accolades. A score of her short stories were also published in various publications such as The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, and Harper’s. Tyler is currently residing in Baltimore, Maryland.