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Redhead by the Side of the Road

April 9, 2020

IMG_3837In Anne Tyler’s new novel Redhead by the Side of the Road, the main character, Micah, repeatedly mistakes a fire hydrant for a short red-haired person and once a newspaper box for “a child in a bulky jacket.”

Micah is Macon Leary, from The Accidental Tourist, living alone. He is Jeremy Pauling from Celestial Navigation, a little older. He is the same male character we meet in her novels over and over, living what he thinks is an orderly life in order to feel some semblance of control, but learning that he has to let go of that control a little bit in order to experience love.

I got a copy of Redhead by the Side of the Road in the mail yesterday and sat down with it immediately. I’d gotten some bad news that morning (the cancellation of a thing I was looking forward to this summer) and thought maybe a new Anne Tyler novel would make me forget. Instead, it made me even more depressed.

Micah treats his “woman friend” Cass like I’ve seen a lot of people treat their friends, back in the days when we could see them. When something rocks the foundations of Cass’ world, Micah retains the sense that he should visit her without remembering the specific thing that happened.

Like so many male characters in Tyler’s novels, Micah is utterly incurious about other peoples’ lives. Maybe this is because he was burned by a friendship gone wrong in college, but for whatever reason he has organized his daily routines around the principle that he must never open himself up to another person. He ignores the overtures of his female clients. When one of them, who has given up on flirting with him, tells him why she continues to date he asks her “whatever happened to learning from experience? Whatever happened to not getting into the selfsame position all over again?”

When a college student who thinks Micah might be his biological father shows up at his apartment, Micah doesn’t even ask him what happened at home or school to make him leave. Over dinner, Cass asks the boy questions about himself and his family while “Micah didn’t see why she had to get so caught up in all this.” He seems to be living his life in a natural state that’s like a drug-induced haze. I wish I had some of that kind of drug right about now—something called Oblivia, maybe.

Cass gets fed up with Micah after it becomes clear to her how unimportant she is in his life. Micah doesn’t see it this way; he is bewildered. When she finally brings up what’s been bothering her, she says “there I was, on the verge of losing my apartment. I call and tell you I’m about to be homeless. But did you offer me a place to stay?” Micah’s response is “Stay here?”

Micah’s routine is so insular and lonely that at one point he thinks
“Imagine if some cataclysm had hit the city overnight. Maybe one of those neutron bombs they used to talk about that wiped out all of humanity but left the buildings intact. How long would it take him to realize something had happened? At first he would just be glad that for once he didn’t need to halt at intersections, he didn’t need to swerve around a bunch of mothers pushing strollers. He would come home from his run and check his phone and feel relieved to find no messages. All the more time to take his shower, have his breakfast, see to the Friday vacuuming. But after that, still no messages! And no tenants banging on his door! Well, fine. He would putter a bit. Maybe start on those revisions for the update of his manual. Fix a quick sandwich for lunch but then (his phone still mysteriously silent) put together something more ambitious for supper that could stew all afternoon. Then more work on the update, but that was getting tedious now. So maybe loll on the couch with his phone awhile, playing a game of spider solitaire. Or several games, actually, because once he started playing he tended to get hooked. But so what; he had all the time in the world, it was beginning to seem.
When twilight fell he would rise from the couch and peer through one of the windows, but the azaleas blocked so much of the view that he would decide to go out front where he could see the street. No cars would be passing. No lights lit the windows across from him. No crowd waited at the lake-trout joint; no old ladies dragged their shopping carts behind them; no boys in hoodies jostled each other off the edge of the curb.”
If Micah’s life was a waste before the streets of all the cities in the world emptied out, how much more of a waste does it seem now?

Now we’re all waking up as Micah does: “he has nothing to look forward to, nothing to daydream about. He wakes on a Monday morning and the light through the slit-eyed window is a bleak, hopeless gray, and the news on the clock radio is all unspeakably sad.”

For the last few weeks, I keep thinking of the Firefly episode “Out of Gas” when River Tam says “you’re afraid we’re going to run out of air. That we’ll die gasping.” No one wants to die gasping, but some of us may not want to live indefinitely as merely something in the landscape, something that, from a distance, might look kind of like a person.

For a quite different reaction, read the Cafe Society review of this novel.


10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 9, 2020 11:07 am

    I love her writing and have this on audio but may put off listening to it if it’s going to make me more depressed. That’s the last thing I need right now.

    • April 9, 2020 11:12 am

      Your mileage may vary, but I wept all the way through it and after.

  2. April 9, 2020 1:32 pm

    Like BermudaOnion, I really enjoy Tyler but I need escapist reads right now. I think this is one for when the current situation has passed!

    • April 13, 2020 2:05 pm

      Maybe. It certainly hit me wrong on the day I read it.

  3. April 9, 2020 1:45 pm

    But Micah wins out in the end! I read this last weekend and my review goes up I think in the middle of next week. I loved it. I’m sorry it made you feel so depressed.

    • April 13, 2020 2:06 pm

      He does “win” by learning what was staring him in the face all along, that human connection is important. Not a message I need right now.

  4. April 10, 2020 8:29 pm

    I still have a few of her older ones yet to read so I’ll save this one for another year! I’m sorry this left you feeling blue, though.

    • April 13, 2020 2:07 pm

      I usually love any book by this author. My favorite, as I often tell people, is Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

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