by Anne Tyler
Knopf, 311 pp., $9.95
Life Before Man
by Margaret Atwood
Simon and Schuster, 317 pp., $11.95
Like a sentry or a detective, Anne Tyler seems to notice everything: the pale fluorescent gloom of laundromats, pockets filled with lint-covered jellybeans, the smell of crabcakes and coconut oil on a Delaware beach, grapy veins in the calves of middle-aged mothers. As a chronicler of domestic fuss, Tyler can be compared to John Updike. When Updike writes about an ice-cream parlor tabletop in The Coup or a fast-food restaurant in Rabbit Redux, the suburbs can take on a Nabokovian shimmer of new-found delight. In Tyler’s work, however, everything is scuffed-up and comfortably lived-in; “Wash Me” is written into the dust. Her characters are fraying at the edges, strays and daydreamers sunk in their own reveries. Circumstances prick them awake, and like the dolls Tyler describes at the end of Earthly Possessions they share a look of bewildered surprise, “as if wondering how they got here.”
Earthly Possessions, Searching for Caleb, The Clock Winder, Celestial Navigation—Tyler’s most recent novels are all set in Maryland, as is her latest, Morgan’s Passing. Easter Sunday, 1967. After a puppet show at the Presbyterian church ends abruptly, a garrulous fraud named Morgan Gower comes to the rescue of the puppeteers—foultempered Leon Meredith and his bride, Emily. Small-boned and enormously pregnant, Emily lies on a pile of muslin bags, suffering from labor pains. Pretending to be a doctor, Morgan delivers Emily’s child near a pizza parlor, rides with her to the hospital, then vanishes like a troll into the hollows of the forest.
As the years go by—1969, 1971, 1973—Morgan watches his daughters sprout and putters away behind the counter of a hardware store; meanwhile, Emily and Leon put on puppet shows at schools, parties, church socials. The Morgans and the Merediths keep brushing up against each other, and in the summer of 1975 they share a nervescraping weekend together at a resort beach in Delaware—”The weekend passed so slowly, it didn’t so much pass as chafe along.” Later, sorting through snapshots taken at the beach, Morgan becomes entranced with Emily, so skimpy and pale in her dark leotards and billowy black skirts. Longing spears Morgan, and he starts writing Emily letters and trailing her through the streets of Baltimore (“His hat rounded corners like a flying saucer, level and spinning”). He even comes over to Emily’s apartment and bangs away on her kitchen pipes, a regular Mr. Fix-it. Soon the inevitable happens: smelling of cough syrup and cigarette ashes, Morgan embraces Emily, they kiss, and love chimes through the air.
Like Earthly Possessions, Morgan’s Passing is a misfit romance. In Earthly Possessions, the misfits—a bank robber, his hostage, and the robber’s seventeen-year-old knocked-up sweetheart—drove past Tastee Freeze after Tastee Freeze on their getaway spree. Short in length and detail, the streamlined novel covered a lot of turf:
We drove through an endless afternoon, passing scenery that appeared to have wilted. Crumbling sheds and unpainted houses, bony cattle drooping over …