Book by book, over her 55-year career, novelist Anne Tyler has built a literary portrait of Baltimore and populated it with quirky, warmly human characters.
Tyler’s women are mostly vivacious and chatty, with flyaway hair and a zest for life. Her men are mostly oddball misfits, a little out of step with the world. “Gentle, bumbling men,” a critic for Kirkus Reviews once called them. Men such as Macon Leary, the Accidental Tourist who hated leaving home; or slow-moving, deliberate Ezra Tull, who ran the Homesick Restaurant and dreamed of giving everyone a home-cooked meal.
But Micah Mortimer in Tyler’s new novel, “Redhead by the Side of the Road,” might be her saddest oddball yet. Tightly wound, bound to routine, blind to the cues that the universe sends him, in midlife he’s getting lonelier without quite understanding why.
Micah lives in the basement apartment of a building where he is the handyman, and he also runs a one-man company called Tech Hermit, doing computer repair in people’s homes. He has a girlfriend, Cass, but “they seem to live fairly separate lives,” Tyler notes.
Micah does everything precisely and on schedule, and he prides himself on following the rules even when nobody is watching. “If thirty-five miles per hour really meant thirty-eight, they ought to go ahead and say thirty-eight,” he thinks.
But several things happen to shake up his rigid routine: Cass is facing eviction and might need a place to live. A teenage boy named Brink knocks on Micah’s door and announces that he is Micah’s son. And all kinds of minor characters — Micah’s chaotic siblings, the tenants in his building, some of his computer clients — make it clear they’d like to be more involved in his life. Every one of them is trying to get him to see the world differently.
But does Micah take the hint? No, not ever, not even when Cass worries that eviction might mean she’ll end up living in her grandmother’s car. “ ‘Ah, now,’ he said, teasing her, ‘why do that when you’ve got a car of your own you can live in?’ ”
Tyler’s brief novel covers just a few weeks in Micah’s life and it moves so quickly and seamlessly you might think it slight. You would be wrong.
As in a short story, each observation, each detail, carries meaning: Micah’s smudged glasses; the encroaching disorder in his pristine apartment; his stuck-in-the-past calendar; his dreams about babies.
On his morning runs (at precisely 7:15 a.m.), nearsighted Micah often mistakes — just for an instant — a certain red fire hydrant for a redheaded child “or a very short grownup.” Later, he mistakes a newspaper box for a toddler in a bulky jacket. “He has noticed that his faulty vision most often reveals itself in attempts to convert inanimate objects into human beings.”
But he doesn’t think about it much beyond that.
Tyler opens and closes the book speaking directly to the reader — “You have to wonder what goes through the mind of such a man,” she writes. “Does he ever stop to consider his life? The meaning of it, the point?”
Like Ezra Tull, like Macon Leary, like so many Anne Tyler characters over the years, Micah Mortimer has trouble seeing what is right in front of his eyes. His inability to do so suffuses this poignant book with almost unbearable loneliness.
Redhead by the Side of the Road
By: Anne Tyler.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 178 pages, $26.95.