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.

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?

This grief isn't always for the dead, however; it's sometimes for those who might as well be. Abandonment abounds in Tyler's world, offstage and on. (Intriguing that her late husband, who wrote in Persian, published a novel called The Book of Absent People.) The title character of Searching for Caleb walks right out of the stultifying Peck family, only to have his half-brother search for him some sixty years later. And then there's Beck Tull, the traveling-salesman father whose wife and three children reopen their wounds throughout Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

Which brings us to Tyler's newest novel, Back When We Were Grownups. This is not a non sequitur: Tyler likes to lace her novels with cross references, and the most significant one in Grownups, I think, is to Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Grownups' main character, Rebecca Davitch, a fifty-something widow, mother, stepmother, and professional party planner, has an ominous nickname: Beck. One immediately thinks, Homesick's Beck fled; will Grownups' Beck do the same? It doesn't help that disquiet shades the book's first sentence: "Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person."

Grownups hasn't much of a plot: Beck looks up her first boyfriend, they begin dating, and we watch them rather awkwardly (these sections have a nice, jagged authenticity) fall "in fond." Many parties are thrown; the extended family converges. Beck has a vivid dream that she has a blond son; her real-life daughters are all dark: is the dream a symbol of a parallel life, the one unlived? Against all this interior tumble Beck extends her "unrelenting jollity," which both reassures and irritates her brood. The Davitches, you see, are a moody bunch. Two abandonments have seeped through the children's lives: their natural mother ran off to be a singer; their father (Joe, Beck's late husband) died young. When one stepdaughter wonders if Joe married Beck merely because he needed a mother for his kids, the query hurts until Beck works it through.

And while she had once believed that she'd been useful only in practical matters (tending the little girls, waiting on Mother Davitch), now she saw that her most valuable contribution had been her joyousness—a quality the Davitches sorely lacked. Not that she herself was joyous to begin with. No, she had had to labor at it. She had struggled to acquire it.

An admirable acquisition, such as it is. And I may be reading too much into this, but I couldn't help thinking there's a tint of self-portraiture (self-criticism?) in the passage—that it's not just about the ever optimistic Beck. I take my cue from the many times Tyler smudges Beck's rose-colored glasses, writing that Beck feels "compromised, ... a fraud" or is "stung" by waggish comments (one of her stepdaughters volleys the "unrelenting jollity" line). Tyler writes, "[Beck] often felt that her main function was keeping a party's sound level at a certain larky, lilting babble, even if it meant that she was forced to babble herself." Isn't that "babble" the problem in Tyler's work? Although Grownups avoids the vaudevillian traps of Morgan's Passing and Breathing Lessons, and the poignant but static defeatism of Celestial Navigation (1974) and Ladder of Years (1995), it still doesn't deliver. Its lightness isn't unpleasing, and its story isn't unaffecting. But Tyler's darker books insinuate themselves more deeply into one's heart. And since Saint Maybe we've had three "light" novels in a row. One craves the old heft.

Now, what to make of all this cross-referencing? It's not as if Tyler hasn't thrown in morsels for her vigilant readers before: Take Eli Everjohn, the idiosyncratic detective hired in both Searching for Caleb and Saint Maybe. Or how Pearl Tull, at a climactic, shimmering moment in Homesick, recalls hearing the Bedloe girl play piano off in the distance (Bedloe is the family's name in Saint Maybe). But Grownups is so awash in Tyleriana, so full of code, that it puts me in mind of sussing out the Ninas in all those Hirschfeld caricatures.

Just scan this quick list: Rebecca's uncle-in-law is given horehound drops for his hundredth birthday; those candies acted as a madeleine for a granddaughter and a grandfather in Searching for Caleb. There are cute store names: Budding Genius for a flower shop. Remember Rent-a-Back, from A Patchwork Planet (1998)? Characters relax by playing solitaire (an apt symbol), as they do in many of Tyler's books.

I could go on. It pains me to say this, but Tyler seems a little spent in Grownups; she leans on all the cross-referencing, and the language—her quiet, often pitch-perfect word choice—is prey to recycling as well. I remember being struck when she described, in The Accidental Tourist, "chips" of sky showing through Macon's wife's curly hair. I felt deflated when, in Grownups, I read "chips of blue sky showed behind the rooftops." Hardly a crime to use the right word twice, but still ... Perhaps, at this stage in her long career, Tyler simply finds herself drawn to airier subjects, airier treatments. No crime in that either.

But it's disconcerting, because there are hints that Grownups could have been a contender. Beck's sort-of beau, Will, for instance, is one of Tyler's more wrenching Maconesque creations. Where a perilously depressed Macon sews himself pita pockets of sheets (stitched together, they help with laundry efficiency), Will cooks himself the same batch of food every Sunday and eats a portion each night thereafter. A body bag for Macon, a joyless sameness for Will. (A passage in which he makes—a different!—dinner for Beck and his utterly unforgiving teenage daughter is real, and hard, and a slap in the face.) But the book's other characters, especially Beck's daughters, don't quite breathe on the page. Beck kindles our interest, yes, but too many of the story lines are wet flints, and the whole never quite ignites.

Case in point: That tantalizing Beck/Beck reference is made, and echoed, but never resolved. (If Rebecca abandons anything, it's her worry that she has lived the "wrong" life.) One even thinks that a dramatic twist beckons, because the book opens with a portentous picnic, at which the Davitches are celebrating the engagement of one of the daughters. This calls to mind another pivotal picnic scene, in Homesick, in which Pearl is hit by an arrow accidentally shot by one of her sons. It's a great passage, shocking and nuanced and just about perfect. Cody is the older brother, Ezra the younger, and Cody's life—now and forever—is shaped by fraternal jealousy, because he's convinced that Pearl loves Ezra best. Tyler wrote from Cody's perspective, as he aimed an arrow at Ezra.

Ezra ran toward him, flapping his arms like an idiot and stammering, "Stop, stop, stop! No! Stop!" Did he really think Cody would shoot him? Cody stared, keeping the bow drawn. Ezra took a flying leap with his arms outstretched like a lover. He caught Cody in a kind of bear hug and slammed him flat on his back ... And meanwhile, what had happened to the arrow? It was minutes before he could struggle to a sitting position, elbowing Ezra off of him. He looked across the field and found his mother leaning on his father's arm, hobbling in his direction with a perfect circle of blood gleaming on the shoulder of her blouse. "Pearl, my God. Oh, Pearl," his father was saying. Cody turned and looked at Ezra, whose face was pale and shocked. "See there?" Cody asked him. "See what you've gone and done?"

"Did I do that?"

"Gone and done it to me again," Cody said, and he staggered to his feet and walked away.

So. If Grownups' picnic is ostensibly the place where Beck discovers "she had turned into the wrong person," what figurative arrow strikes her? As far as I can make out, it's "shot" by another son, in this case belonging to her stepdaughter's fiancé. The boy's name is Peter, and he's a pale, forlorn child, much like Alexander, Muriel's seven-year-old in The Accidental Tourist. Peter falls into the river, partly because of Beck (she was trying to corral him to join the others). But then she fishes him out, and he's rattled but okay. The point being? I'm not sure. Somehow this immersion opens a wrinkle in time. And then, "brushing across her mind like the most delicate of moth wings," comes the dire thought "How on earth did I get like this? How? How did I ever become this person who's not really me?"

One Tyler scholar, Joseph C. Voelker, deconstructed the Homesick arrow scene as a play on Zeno's arrow of time, the paradox from Greek philosophy that pits two kinds of time, chronos and kairos, against each other. Chronos is linear, clock time; kairos is a sort of cosmic presentness. Cody's consuming jealousy makes him edgy, so he's always anticipating what's to come, never living in the here and now. Meanwhile, he scorns but envies, in Voelker's words, Ezra's "maddening ability to stay blind to the segmenting of moments, to slip inside any single one and take a nap with his cat."

This may all be a bit much: it's hard to picture Tyler the semiotician, poring over her Zeno to get the parallels just right. But even if the analogy is too ambitious by half, Voelker did hit on an element vital to her work: the magnetic pull of time gone by, the hopelessness of fixing it secure. Tyler may disavow any association with Faulkner, but his "The past is never dead. It's not even past" surely applies to her authorial view as well.

The vertigo of the long-ago: that's what rushes up and seizes Beck at the picnic—and she spends the remainder of the book trying to get her bearings, to trace how her past chuted her to this present. Along the way, I'm happy to report, there are prose moments to savor. Just before Peter falls into the river, for instance, Beck somehow eases into a sense of well-being.

Oh, didn't a river rest your eyes! She sank into a peaceful trance, watching how the water seemed to gather itself as it traveled toward a sharp bend. It swelled up in loose, silky tangles and then it smoothed and flowed on, transparent at the edges but nearly opaque at the center, as yellow-green and sunlit as a bottle in a window. She drifted with it, dreaming.

"Silky tangles." What a pluperfect sample of her style, the small, startling, but not overdone image that deepens the rest. Adjectives are kind to one another in Tyler's prose, never jostling, waiting their turn to speak. Through novel after novel, sentence after sentence, she gives us this undeniable strength, this alloy of proportion, momentum, color, and feeling. Tyler's books may sometimes be disappointing, but never her writing.

In one of his reviews Updike granted that Tyler had "one possible weakness: a tendency to leave the reader just where she found him." I think he meant that usually her characters' lives don't change, just their perspective. Tyler, in Updike's words, believes "the end of traveling is to return." He continues,

This is not untrue. Nothing Anne Tyler sets down is untrue. But the impending moral encloses the excitements of her story in a circle of safety that gives them the coziness of entertainment.

Now, Updike wrote all this in 1977, before Tyler's best (and least "cozy") books—The Accidental Tourist, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and Saint Maybe—were published. Those books don't "leave the reader just where she found him" as much as some of her others. But both criticisms certainly apply to lots of her novels—especially the Pulitzer-winning one. Indeed, that "coziness of entertainment" has prompted two Hallmark Hall of Fame productions, one of Breathing Lessons and one of Saint Maybe.

All right, then, ragged, dramatic change is not a prominent feature of Tyler's work. But she does use epiphany, sparely, and that may be the next closest thing. I've mentioned Macon Leary's "inner rush" in the Paris cab. In one of Tyler's most justly famous scenes Pearl Tull comes across a transcendent passage from her girlhood diary. Macon's and Pearl's epiphanies reconstitute their lives enough to make those lives tolerable—the post-realization image Tyler uses in both instances is sunlight. For her, a spangle of light is the best we can expect. And maybe that's enough.

"I don't think most people are capable of [change]," Tyler told an interviewer in 1972. What informs this belief? Trust me, you won't find out with the help of Charlie Rose, or Terry Gross, or the manager of your local Barnes & Noble megastore. Tyler doesn't do author tours. She doesn't teach and she doesn't lecture. And she seldom does spoken interviews, though she occasionally, politely, responds to questions in writing. Tyler is no Thomas Pynchon or J. D. Salinger (she has written scores of book reviews, for instance), but she is reclusive. She admits that she and Jeremy Pauling, Celestial Navigation's collage artist and full-blown agoraphobic, are "more alike than anyone knew."

A snapshot biography: The oldest of four, Tyler moved around frequently as her parents settled in a half dozen secluded Quaker blessed communities. Her father was a chemist, her mother a social worker. She was mostly home-schooled; there weren't many other children around. It seems fair to ascribe her astute portraits of older people to the prevalence of elders in her life. Grownups, for instance, offers up Poppy, Beck's uncle-in-law, voluble, stooped, and as "light as milkweed." And her portrait of the dying Pearl Tull in Homesick rings with trueness.

Tyler attended public school for the first time at the age of eleven, in North Carolina. Schoolmates were fascinated that she had never before used a phone. In one of her interviews she said that this enfolded upbringing made her view "the normal world with a certain amount of distance and surprise, which can sometimes be helpful to a writer." In high school Tyler planned on being an artist; she is said to sketch doodles of her characters before she writes her novels. After studying with Reynolds Price at Duke, she did graduate work in Russian studies at Columbia (in Searching for Caleb one character's world turns upside down when he reads Dostoevski). Her debut novel came out in 1964. And her career got its first big boost when Gail Godwin praised Celestial Navigation in The New York Times Book Review. Since 1967 she has lived in Baltimore, and most of her novels are rooted there.

Who have her detractors been since then? James Wolcott seems plain bored by Tyler's work. Diane Johnson doesn't like the fact that her brand of bittersweet tastes more sweet than bitter. Johnson berated The Accidental Tourist for being a "Reaganesque dream novel," because it "urge[s] a whole agenda of comforting, consoling ideas" that are "powerfully attractive." She continued, "It's just that they are not true." Vivian Gornick, in her Village Voice review of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, conceded Tyler's great talent but indicted her for what Gornick considers nothing less than a paralyzing immaturity. She wrote,

Anne Tyler is held spellbound before the hopeless loss of childhood her characters refuse to accept. She feels the dull pain of that lifelong desire for the normal family no one ever had, understands the psychic bondage in which people far into middle age are held. But Tyler mythicizes the inability to give up the family, and because she does her novels do not achieve depth.

I read this passage over and over, feeling ill and traitorous as I wondered if I agreed. Then I pushed on to the end of Gornick's screed.

Ironically, [Tyler] is beloved precisely because her writing skill invests the ordinary infantilism of American family life with a tender glamour. She allows the middle-brow middle class to love itself for all its poignant insufficiency.

Excuse me? Does anyone else find this last line unforgivably smug? So patronizing that it discolors—maybe discredits, too—all that came before? Gornick's blunt criticism epitomizes the attitude that may be keeping Tyler from vaulting to the critical heights she deserves, Updike or no Updike.

In short, it's a class thing. Not lower class or upper class but wrong class. Tyler doesn't write yuppie fiction or proletariat fiction or confessional fiction. Her characters aren't hip. They struggle, but out of earshot. They are the last people one would see on talk shows, the last people who would go into therapy—no matter how much they might need it. Some of us know such people very well, and to see them explained, even a little, in American literature makes us glad. There's something (I'll just say it) so wonderfully Quaker about Anne Tyler's work, her beautiful but muslin prose, her profound tolerance for her characters, the small-d democracy of her vantage point. As Edward Hoagland said, in a review of Breathing Lessons, she is someone "you would want on your jury if you ever had to stand trial."

Decades ago the author discussed in an interview what sorts of characters were missing from northern fiction: "There aren't enough quiet, gentle, basically good people in a novel," she answered. There are in Anne Tyler's fiction, though. And despite her shortcomings (which I'm almost loath to admit, because I do love some of her work so very much), this is a tremendous gift. Because no one cares more enduringly about those who, in the end, endure.