There’s always a good reason to celebrate a new Anne Tyler novel, and her 23rd, “Redhead by the Side of the Road,” warrants popping open the champagne. After all, who is better at coining a title? (“Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,” “Saint Maybe,” “A Spool of Blue Thread.”) Who else can make words sparkle with humor and tenderness in quite this way? Even more, among what often seems like a sea of bloated door stoppers demanding drastic liposuction, this book, lean and mean, comes in under 200 pages. Tyler wastes neither sentence nor scene.
The grab-me title refers to the protagonist’s oblivious tendency to give inanimate objects human form; in this case, the fire hydrant Micah Mortimer passes on his daily run. Ever eccentric, Micah is 43, perhaps on the spectrum, clearly a geek. His hours are regulated to the second. At precisely 7:15 he leaves for his morning jog. After his shower, and his meticulously prepared breakfast, he attaches a sign reading TECH HERMIT to his Kia’s roof. A fanatically cautious driver, he prides himself on obeying every rule of the road while he heads out to service his clients’ computers. He’s content enough with this low-paid, low-prestige job as “he wasn’t all that fond of people ordering him around.” Afternoons, he works as the super of his Baltimore apartment building, each day dedicated to its own particular task. If it’s Wednesday, it must be the recycling bins. In hilarious and poignant detail, Tyler describes Micah’s unvarying schedule: both janitorial chores and the household tasks associated with his minimalist, “not very cheery,” basement apartment, its single shelf devoted to computer manuals and tech magazines, its ugly recliner, its mopped floors and scrubbed countertops.
Once she’s established Micah’s obsessive-compulsive cleaning and anti-social attitudes, Tyler drops the bombshell — he has a “woman friend,” not, however, a girlfriend, a term he disdains as suitable only to someone under 30. This testament to female endurance, if not martyrdom, is Cass, a fourth-grade teacher. The passion-deficient Micah “consider[s] her restful to look at,” and slots her into his week as just another task on his to-do list. Despite their regular Saturday-morning excursions in his Kia “minus the TECH HERMIT sign,” he still remains the hermit, holding Cass at a distance the way he does everything and everyone else.
Soon enough, disruption threatens Micah’s routine. A young man shows up at his building, introduces himself as Brink Adams, the son of Micah’s old college heartthrob, Lorna. He’s left college, discovered Micah’s photo in an old shoebox of his mother’s, and is on a mission to find out if Micah is his father. Right away, Micah notes paternity is an impossibility since Micah and Lorna “had never once had sex.” Confronted by her purity ring, “Micah hadn’t tried to change her mind.” On top of Brink’s sudden intrusion, Cass phones, terrified she’s about to be evicted from her apartment. Micah calms her down. He assures her she’ll find another place. “[L]iving with someone full-time was just too messy,” Micah decides.
Things get messier. Brink reappears, so hungry and homeless Micah is compelled to ask him for dinner and to spend the night. Alas, it’s Cass’s night, too. When she turns up, feeling equally homeless, Micah is bewildered. Does Cass expect to move in with him? Will Brink ever move out? What’s obvious, however, is that he’s under invasion.
More confusion follows. Micah’s sister summons him to an engagement party for her son. Micah is alarmed. (“He disliked weddings; they always felt so crowded.”) The minute he suggests Cass accompany him to his sister’s, she dumps him. “Did you offer me a place to stay?” she complains. Instead, “[you] invite the nearest stranger into your spare room.”
Alone, without the ameliorating effects of Cass, he suffers through a celebration overflowing with his three other sisters, kids, grandkids, brothers-in law. This tour-de-force gathering is a screwball comedy in itself: “As a rule, conversations in this family didn’t so much flow as spray up in bursts here and there, like geysers.” Though he can appreciate “their noisiness and pell-mellness,” he’s terrified. “Maybe he was one skipped vacuuming day away from total chaos.”
Sorting through the chaos, Micah again anthropomorphizes the red-topped hydrant. He recognizes how repetitious his thoughts are, “how his entire life ran in a rut, really.” He knows he must learn to live with the muddle of his fellow human beings.
But how? The way he manages to step out of his comfort zone to meet with Lorna, to visit Cass’s classroom, to help Brink, shows the author at the top of her form. It’s no surprise that every quirky character, from the stars to the cameos, is a vintage Tyler portrait, fully drawn. When Micah returns to his empty house, he starts to understand that the emptiness is no longer a virtue. Perhaps the solitary life may not be worth living. That he accepts this and learns something about himself, as well as how to read others, leads to an ending both nuanced and satisfying. A master at the small domestic moments that stand in for large and universal truths, Tyler never disappoints. This is a wonderful novel.
Mameve Medwed has published five novels, many essays and reviews, and lives in Cambridge. She can be reached at email@example.com. Her sixth novel, “Minus Me,” will be published in January.
Knopf, 192 pages, $26.95