Book Review: The Redhead by the Side of the Road, Anne Tyler

“The only place I went wrong, he writes, was expecting things to be perfect. Abruptly, he signals for a turn, and when the light changes he heads east instead of continuing north.”

After reading a number of heavily plot driven books this year, Redhead was a definite change of pace for me. I’d not read anything by Anne Tyler before, although I was aware that A Spool of Blue Thread had been longlisted for the Booker Prize, just as this one was.

The novel focuses on Mycah Mortimer and it would be very easy to write him off as an intensely boring man and someone unworthy of being the protagonist of a novel:

YOU HAVE TO WONDER what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.

And he has some frankly ludicrous quirks. He talks to himself in a faux French accent as he cooks, and adopts a German or possibly Russian one when he does “Zee moppink of zee floors”. He imagines an omniscient surveillance system on the road continually monitoring his driving, which he dubs Traffic God and imagines its passing judgement on him:

“Notice how he uses his turn signal even when no one’s behind him,” they would say.

Mycah allocates his chores to specific days and the routine never varies. And he has a woman friend, a romantic partner, but “he refused to call anyone in her late thirties a “girlfriend”.” It is a tidy, neat contained life as Mycah works as a self employed computer technician and caretaker for the apartment block in which he lives where he grumbles and moans about the failure of other residents to abide by the bin days. His is a life which has

more or less solidified: compromises arrived at, incompatibilities adjusted to, minor quirks overlooked. They had it down to a system, you could say.

It is a life that does not appear to be unhappy at all: his home is secure; his business adequate, even if his advice to clients seems limited to the familiar “Have you turned it off and on again”; he takes very seriously the care of the residents in his apartment, and genuinely if quietly seems to empathise with them, even if their routines do not reach his standards. But is the absence of unhappiness the same as the presence of happiness?

But it is a life that would be easily dismissed as mediocre and meaningless. As Tyler opines in the opening

Does he ever stop to consider his life? The meaning of it, the point? Does it trouble him to think that he will probably spend his next thirty or forty years this way? Nobody knows. And it’s almost certain nobody’s ever asked him.

But this is what Tyler proceeds to do in this slim and strangely haunting novel – stop and explore his life and she puts little pressures and tensions on that life.

Cass’s housing situation becomes a trifle tenuous for a moment and Mycah does not ask her to stay with him; and Brink, the teenage son of an old college girlfriend arrives on his doorstep, somewhat irrationally under the belief that Mycah might be his father. Tyler mines the awkwardness of both situations for deliciously painful comedy: suggesting that Cass could have slept in her car was never going to help the progress of the relationship! And the gulf between Brink and Mycah – a gulf despite which a rather tender friendship and trust seemed to grow, albeit in a rather inchoate state – was delicately judged.

Even though Mycah misjudges both these incidents and recognises himself that he handled them poorly, they are the small vicissitudes of life. The stakes at first glance seem rather low, but then we need to ask ourselves what other stakes actually matter, other than our chance to make connections, to be a human being alive among our fellow human beings.

And Mycah is affected by them. And Tyler’s depiction of that is so quietly and so subtly done, but the depth of his emotions was beautiful and heart achingly real.

There was one scene that I loved about half way through: Mycha attends a dinner with his family – a range of exuberant sisters and their husbands and children. Where he is appalled by the chaos – cataloguing how

Ada, like all of Micah’s sisters, had a boundless tolerance for clutter. Micah had to swerve around a skateboard and a sippy cup on his way up the front steps, and the porch was strewn not only with the standard strollers and tricycles but also with a pair of snow boots from last winter, a paper bag full of coat hangers, and what appeared to be somebody’s breakfast plate bearing a wrung-out half of a grapefruit.

The family likewise tease him about his fastidiousness throughout the meal. And there seemed a wonderfully warm tenderness beneath the banter at the meal. It was a delightful scene.

Anne Tyler – bearing in mind that this is my only example of her writing to date! – seems to be great at imbuing commonplace objects and images with a powerful evocative suggestiveness. The titular redhead, for example is in fact a certain fire hydrant which he mistakes for a redheaded girl or young woman every day on his runs. And there is something wonderfully true there – there is a collection of rocks by the road I drive along which, just for a moment, I always mistake for sheep even though I know that they are not! – and poetic in that image.

So, at this point I am going to head off and look up some other Anne Tyler books because I feel that Mycah Mortimer is going to be one of those characters who takes up residence in my mind.

Overall:

Characters:

Plot / Pace:

Worldbuilding:

Structure:

Language:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Chatto and Windus

Date:  9th April 2020

Available: Amazon, Penguin

2 comments

  1. Great review! I am actually about to start reading the book, my first Tyler in nearly a decade 🙂 She does have the skill of making the mundane seem extraordinary.

    Like

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