Books May 2001

Ordinary People

In her latest novel, as in all her work, Anne Tyler explores un-hip, gentle lives of fortitude and decency

Illustration by Yan Nascimbene

Anne Tyler "is not merely good, she is wickedly good," John Updike has written. It's the kind of blurb that publicists wish upon a star for, and, in fact, it often sequins the flaps and covers of Tyler's fifteen novels. Updike's words always take me aback. Not that I don't think Tyler is extremely good—furtively, sometimes wincingly good. No, I trip over that "wickedly." It implies a stylistic brashness and a certain oh-so-Updikean lubricity, neither of which traits remotely gilds her outlook. We're talking Anne Tyler here, not Anne Rice. The truth is that Tyler's body of work may have less to do with the body, the erotic, than that of any other major American writer today. Her plainsong prose is so well made—not to mention popular in a Hallmark Hall of Fame kind of way—that it doesn't quite register with the dressed-in-black literati. One doesn't go to Tyler for the shock of the new. One goes to her for the pull of the old, because her preoccupations are more in line with, say, George Eliot's than Don DeLillo's. And those preoccupations? Well, Tyler's books all teem with family, and virtually all of them chronicle repression shaded by grief—who fights it, who succumbs to it.

Listen to the proper, aged patriarch Daniel Peck, for instance, in her sixth novel, Searching for Caleb (1975):

In my childhood I was trained to hold things in, you see. But I thought I was holding them until a certain time. I assumed that someday, somewhere, I would again be given the opportunity to spend all that saved-up feeling. When will that be?

When, indeed? Lifelong provincial repression is hardly a topic to start a buzz in The New York Review of Books. Maybe that's why Updike's "wickedly" has such legs. It's a sexy selling point for unsexy books; to be fair, it also conjures Tyler's strong and—depending on whom you ask—charming or irksome antic side. If one knows this author only from The Accidental Tourist (1985), her most famous title (the movie version was nominated for a best-picture Oscar), one has pushed through that Tylerian copse of pinched repression and zany pluck. To wit: Tourist's main character, Macon Leary, is a prim, shut-down sort, separated from his wife and mourning his late son. Muriel Pritchett is the endearingly feisty, red-nail-polished single mom who cajoles Macon back to life.

Most Tyler novels contain a Macon and a Muriel. The Macons all have pilot lights blueing to black. The Muriels are dog trainers or fortune tellers or clutter counselors with unruly hair and flame-up-high spirits. Whatever one thinks of such juxtaposition (it works in The Accidental Tourist, I think, but feels forced in most of the other books), it grinds into the core of Tyler's oeuvre, to the point where her very reputation splits in twain.

One feels like the Frank Burns of reviewers, disapproving of such versatility. Judging by Tyler's sales figures, readers seem happy ferreting out the fun; they aren't fazed by her humor or by the tonal switchbacks between (and within) her novels. I'm fazed, though. I think Tyler's comic gifts are uneven at best, but her gifts as a serious, moving chronicler of a certain kind of American family are supreme. She has written one masterpiece, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), which I love unreservedly. It sounds hardly a comic note throughout, and was nominated for a Pulitzer, only to be bested by Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Tyler has also tendered us two near masterpieces, The Accidental Tourist and Saint Maybe (1991), the first tragicomic leaning toward tragic, the second a brown study of duty, redemption, and, to quote Emily Dickinson, "that pale sustenance, Despair!"

Nonetheless, a chunk of Tyler's critical acclaim arises from her "funny" books. In 1980, for instance, Morgan's Passing was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Morgan is a latter-day Walter Mitty, and the story's other characters include puppeteers, a fact that makes me tired just typing it. Morgan's Passing is full of hugger-mugger (Updike called it "manic"), and is my least favorite of Tyler's novels. As for her biggest award, the Pulitzer in 1989, it alighted on Breathing Lessons, a sometimes powerful consideration of one day in the life of a marriage. Sometimes powerful. At other times Breathing blows it, stirring up so much tiresome slapstick that one wonders if one has failed to register some Beckettian ain't-life-absurd statement. Or if the book just plain isn't funny. Maggie, the flighty and meddlesome wife, barrels into a Pepsi truck. Maggie jumps headfirst into a laundry cart. Maggie is caught unzipping her husband's fly at a funeral.

Okay, there's a little sex in Tyler's books—a fact that might have tickled Updike, but, strangely, he had lost interest (at least in print) by the time Breathing Lessons came out. A few years earlier, however, he had reviewed five of Tyler's novels in succession. That "wickedly" sentence comes from his first review, of Searching for Caleb. After Caleb, though Updike was ambivalent at times, he was ever generous, even about the subpar Earthly Possessions (1977)—an odd tale of a woman taken not-very-hostile hostage by a bank robber which is, unfortunately, marred by Tyler's other major flaw: a sort of fey, nettlesome improbability of plot. As for The Accidental Tourist, Updike gave it qualified praise. He extended his most reverent sentences to its predecessor, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. When you get right down to it, though, Updike's involvement with Tyler seemed to matter more for its quantity than for its quality. I mean, five reviews in a row? The implication was loud: If U was watching so closely, then T must be someone to watch. Still, Tyler isn't easy to place in the pantheon, because she's so—plain. Take her disavowal of Faulkner: "If it were possible to write like him," she said in 1976, "I wouldn't. I disagree with him. I want everyone to understand what I'm getting at."

I want everyone to understand what I'm getting at. Who is wooed by this wish? An intriguing range of writers and reviewers. Larry McMurtry is a fan. To a lesser degree, so is Edward Hoagland. Francine du Plessix Gray and Michiko Kakutani have given Tyler glowing reviews. Her friend Eudora Welty once said, "If I could have written the last sentence in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, I'd have been happy for the rest of my life." The Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley—a fellow Baltimorean—was beside himself with adoration for The Accidental Tourist: It "cuts so close to the bone that it leaves one aching with pleasure and pain," he wrote. "Words fail me: one cannot reasonably expect fiction to be much better than this." Nick Hornby has called Tyler "my favorite writer, and the best line-and-length novelist in the world." That may be hyperbolic, but it's not unfathomable. When she hits her stride, Tyler is not only a wordsmith of sublime control, she's a writer of astonishingly elastic imagination and empathy. One has only to think of the many other, near poisonous portraits of the repressed, such as Evan Connell's Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, to know that Tyler's art is brave and humane in the extreme.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Imagination Is Everything" (November 12, 1997)
A conversation with E. Annie Proulx.

Here is Macon Leary, for instance, the accidental tourist of the title: he writes business-travel guidebooks for those who would rather be home. Even before grief pinned him flat, Macon was emotionally parsimonious, a man so leery (his last name is apt) of life that he almost doesn't live it. (As literary kin, Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe, the bereft father of The Sportswriter and Independence Day, comes fastest to mind.) When speaking to the unconverted, I sometimes sputter, making excuses as I brandish a Tyler excerpt; she never dazzles or blinds us with her prose, à la Annie Proulx or David Foster Wallace. Instead the quiet accretion of her insights hits one in the chest. In the following passage Macon is on a business trip and looking for a cab in Paris, a task made thorny because he threw his back out a few days earlier. He has just stopped taking painkillers, and his thoughts are thus coming clearer. Numbness (the metaphor is pointed) is no longer possible. A kindly teenage boy helps him hail a taxi.

[The boy] had a jaunty, stiff-legged way of walking that seemed familiar ... If Ethan hadn't died, Macon thought, wouldn't he have grown into such a person? ... And if dead people aged, wouldn't it be a comfort? To think of Ethan growing up in heaven—fourteen years old now instead of twelve—eased the grief a little. Oh, it was their immunity to time that made the dead so heartbreaking ... Macon gazed out the cab window, considering the notion in his mind. He felt a kind of inner rush, a racing forward. The real adventure, he thought, is the flow of time; it's as much adventure as anyone could wish. And if he pictured Ethan still part of that flow—in some other place, however unreachable—he believed he might be able to bear it after all.

To bear or not to bear, that is Tyler's question. As surely as Jane Austen's men and women are on tenterhooks about marriage and money, Tyler's are floored by grief and the bound condition of their hearts. Grief is her primary plot propellant, as reducible as arithmetic: 1. Someone dies. 2. Someone else must go on. 3. Can he or she? 4. Who will help?

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