When readers first meet Ian Bedloe, the hero of Anne Tyler’s new novel, Saint Maybe, he is approaching what he expects will be “the most important night of his life”: he is preparing to lose his virginity to his girlfriend, Cicely. One might say, though, that his sexual initiation is delayed until his marriage to a woman named Rita di-Carlo, some three hundred pages and two decades later. Although not strictly a virgin on his wedding day, he might as well be, for he has undergone more than twenty years of all but unbroken celibacy.
Much has intervened for Ian in the twenty-four years since he’d raptly envisioned his first sexual conquest. He has dropped out of college, curtailed his ambitions, and sacrificed friends and social life in order to raise three children he has not fathered. He has also become something of a religious fanatic, allying himself with a rag-tag, moribund Christian organization called the Church of the Second Chance. None of these developments would have been foreseeable to the seventeen-year-old Ian, who nonetheless proves to have been accurate in identifying the most important night of his life: for on that evening, although he did not lose his virginity, he brought about the death of his twenty-nine-year-old brother, Danny.
Danny’s death—a suicide—is impulsive and unreckonable. It comes less than a year after his marriage to a young woman (little more than a girl, really) named Lucy. Danny, an easy-going boy-man who works as a post office clerk, dotes on Lucy and is a proud new father besides. Trouble begins when he returns one night from a stag party, feeling both jubilant and a little drunk, to discover that Lucy is out and an irate Ian is babysitting. Ian resents having been kept childbound longer than arranged (his thoughts are fixed on girlfriend Cicely and the condom in his pocket), and while Danny drives him home he lets his older brother have it:
“I just want to know how long you intend to be a fall guy,” Ian said.
Danny turned onto Waverly and drew up in front of the house. He cut the engine and looked over at Ian. He seemed to be entirely sober now. He said, “What are you trying to tell me, Ian?”
“She’s out all afternoon any time she can get a sitter,” Ian said. “She comes back perfumed and laughing and wearing clothes she can’t afford. That white knit dress. Haven’t you ever seen her white dress? Where’d she get it? How’d she pay for it? How come she married you quick as a flash and then had a baby just seven months later?”
Moments later, Ian having gone into the house, Danny responds by flattening the car’s accelerator and driving head-long into a wall.
Lucy (despite Ian’s belief that her affections have been drifting) is undone by Danny’s death. She slides into a disoriented, heavily tranquilized mourning and eventually dies …