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 of an overdose. At this point, viewing himself as the cause of two deaths, Ian reasonably supposes that no bitterer news can possibly come his way—but evidence soon turns up to suggest that Lucy was not unfaithful to Danny after all. Ian’s cruel, cynical reprimand—the words that sent his older brother to his death—may have been unfounded. Some expiation is called for, and Ian begins his decades-long search for deliverance from the tortures of his conscience.
One night, months after the accident, Ian straggles into the Church of the Second Chance, which meets in a garage, and immediately experiences a sense of belonging. The church’s founder, Reverend Emmett, informs him that in penance for his misdeed he must quit college and devote himself to raising three children: Agatha and Thomas (Lucy’s two kids by an earlier marriage) and Daphne, the infant that Danny had assumed was his own until Ian planted his mortal doubts. The orphans naturally prove to be a handful, and Ian, who takes a job as a carpenter, devotes a couple of harried decades—his twenties and his thirties—to raising them. The years weigh upon him. By the close of the novel, the likable, callow, joking teen-ager has been transformed into a plodding, disheveled middle-aged man whose hair, “long, limp tendrils drooping over his collar, dull brown mixed with strands of gray,” hasn’t been cut in nearly half a year.
Readers familiar with Tyler’s earlier work may be surprised to find religion at the core of her new novel. Although I know nothing about her personal convictions, her handling of spiritual matters has a wry, temperate feel. Unlike other modern novelists who have dealt centrally with issues of faith and deliverance—Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor—she engages the otherworldly with almost satirical detachment; in her literary ambitions, she inhabits another terrain from the Waugh who aspired in Brideshead Revisited to demonstrate “the operation of divine grace” or in Helena to illustrate the likelihood of the Cross’s preservation over millennia. Saint Maybe winds up being something of a curious creation: a secular tale of holy redemption.
If Saint Maybe‘s religious preoccupations are unexpected, the book’s evocation of place and its manner of unfolding are happily familiar. Tyler’s setting is again Baltimore and the cast is a middle-class family with earth-bound preoccupations; there’s not an intellectual in sight. Her customary easy way with time, her deftness at condensing a broad sweep of years, is once more on display. And, as one has come to expect of Tyler, the story takes off right away. By the time I’d reached page seven, I’d fallen for Saint Maybe at the most primal level: I was already asking myself, What will happen next?
Saint Maybe strikes a familiar note, too, in its intricate, edgy negotiations between the sexes. As in her last four novels (Breathing Lessons, which was published in 1989; The Accidental Tourist, 1985; Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, 1982; and Morgan’s Passing, 1980), men and women are constantly at odds over the place that order (in the most embracing sense: neatness, logic, predictability, routine) ought to hold in their lives. By and large, in these five novels men are the organizers and the regimenters; women are the dishevelers, the rumplers of routines. One thinks of Sarah Leary in The Accidental Tourist, who according to her husband Macon has never understood “that running a house required some sort of system.” Or Maggie Moran, the “harum-scarum” heroine of Breathing Lessons, who in the course of one of her slapstick days drives her newly repaired car from the driveway of the body shop smack into the side of a Pepsi truck. Or Lucy in Saint Maybe, who first catches Danny’s attention when she solicits his advice on the best way to mail a bowling ball from Baltimore to Cheyenne, Wyoming.
In each case, the man toward whom the somewhat ditzy heroine intuitively gravitates is a figure of cool affect and staid habits. Ms. Tyler’s novels reveal a, to my mind, deeply endearing fondness for boring men. Mundane? Drab? Unexciting? Her women find such traits pretty much irresistible. Who could be drearier than Macon Leary, who carries three tabbed folders when he goes grocery shopping, one for “data from Consumer Reports,” one for price lists, and one for coupons? And yet the instant his marriage to Sarah collapses, he is eagerly set upon by an outlandish young woman (she looks “like a flamenco dancer with galloping consumption”) who works at a place called the Meow-Bow Animal Hospital. In like fashion, Maggie Moran has hooked herself up to a man who whiles away his free hours playing solitaire. And Lucy in Saint Maybe jumps into marriage with a man who, nearly thirty, still lives at home and is seemingly content to spend his days sorting envelopes and weighing packages.
Time and again the men in Tyler’s novels stand in danger of burying themselves, of settling so snugly into routine that they scarcely realize their souls are dying. For them, women are a disturbance, an itch, an irruption. As the years go by in Saint Maybe, Ian, too, succumbs to this pattern. The reader recognizes (even as Ian himself, with his grateful protestations that the Church of the Second Chance has “saved his life,” steadfastly will not) that his religion safeguards him too well from life’s uneasy but enlivening give-and-take. With its numerous prohibitions (the No Caffeine Rule, the No Sugar Rule, the No Sex Before Marriage Rule), the church may unwittingly foster an existence that becomes its own form of solitaire. It certainly has rendered him solitary in the most workaday sense—he has no social life outside church and family. Women (even those whose attractions he acknowledges) cannot get at him, and his fellow carpenters steer clear of him; they think him peculiar and are put off by his pontifications. The three children he has raised worry about his becoming the male equivalent of a stereotypical old maid: fussy, punctilious, ill-at-ease, remote. They despair of his ever establishing a life without them. But enter, in the closing chapters, an Amazon of prodigious energies, the six-foot-tall Rita diCarlo, who acknowledges having set her sights on the chaste teetotaler Ian as she sits in a bar wearing paint-spattered blue jeans and a Hell Bent for Leather T-shirt. She has dust balls in her hair. Of course she’s utterly inappropriate for Ian. And of course Ian doesn’t have a chance. He has found his bride at last.
In perhaps my favorite moment in a Tyler novel, a brief exchange in The Accidental Tourist, Sarah confronts the realization that Macon will abandon her for Muriel Pritchett, the woman from Meow-Bow:
“I suppose you realize what your life is going to be like,” she said. She climbed out of bed. She stood next to him in her nightgown, hugging her bare arms. “You’ll be one of those mismatched couples no one invites to parties. No one will know what to make of you. People will wonder whenever they meet you, ‘My God, what does he see in her? Why choose someone so inappropriate? It’s grotesque, how does he put up with her?’ And her friends will no doubt be asking the same about you.”
“That’s perfectly true,” Macon said. He felt a mild stirring of interest; he saw now how such couples evolved. They were not, as he’d always supposed, the result of some ludicrous lack of perception, but had come together for reasons that the rest of the world would never guess.
He zipped his overnight bag.
Sarah is right, obviously. She might even be said to understate the case, for in addition to social ostracism and embarrassment Muriel will bring Macon intellectual frustration, wild superstitions, unending emotional demands, and a maddening illogic. But she will bring something else to this man whose soul has gone into hiding. She will bring him life.
The partitioning of male and female roles in so much of her fiction may have the sound of formula, but Tyler manages in book after book to stay one or two steps ahead of us—a distance which, from our point of view, may be ideal for admiring her skill: we see her at work but don’t always see what she’s working at or toward. Her plots brim with surprises. Merely to jolt the reader with something unanticipated is of course no large feat—but to leave us feeling, as Tyler does, that the rearranged story still makes sense, that what arrived so unexpectedly should actually have been predicted, is a sizable accomplishment. There is in her penetration into the entangling forces of human motivation what one can call “wisdom.”
Of all the writerly virtues, wisdom surely is among the most intractable from the reviewer’s perspective, since it rarely lends itself to easy summary or excerpt. It plays itself out over time. It generally requires a big playing field, and hence may belong, as Tyler’s career suggests, more readily to the novelist than to the short-story writer. In the best of her books, each new twist in the plot elicits from the reader a skeptical Really? followed shortly by an Of course—in much the same way as, in life itself, our hindsight converts a revelation into an inevitability. This is that bipartite pleasure—that brief lag between resistance and acceptance—which distinguishes first-rate realistic fiction: one relishes, over and over, being temporarily outwitted.
In Saint Maybe, for example, it looks certain that orphaned Daphne, who so closely resembles her wild mother, must grow up into a brassy hellion—as all the early signs tell us she will. When she matures instead into a timid creature who can’t hold a job—at a florist’s, a camera store, a picture framer’s—because everything turns out to be “too personal,” the reader experiences some misgivings. Has something gone wrong? Is this a character that has been insufficiently or falsely grounded? But with time we accept her. The motions of her life reveal their own determining momentum—no less fixed (though far less destructive) than that of Danny’s car when he took aim at a brick wall and plunged his foot upon the accelerator.
Tyler’s flair for creating characters who move believably through time is a virtue easily discounted. For one thing, she masks her serious aims with a deceptive cheeriness of tone (which only occasionally verges on the cloying). A more serious “liability,” however, is that she reveals an essentially sanguine temperament in a literary period which tends to view the terms “comic novelist” and “serious novelist” as incompatible. Her work is light-hearted. (It is also beautifully suffused with melancholy.) Among gifted contemporary American writers, she is unusual in treating the comic not as a branching of her art but as its taproot. And her comedy rarely takes the form of that deadpan chronicling of grim ironies often classified as “apocalyptic humor.” She is fond of gentle inanities: the man in a restaurant who calls for dessert “in the slow, pleased, coaxme drawl of someone whose womenfolks have all his life encouraged him to put a little meat on his bones”; the woman in a New York train station wearing “an olive-drab coverall exactly like an auto mechanic’s except that it was made of leather”; the toddler at the zoo who “had paused in front of an elephant and raised his face in astonishment and fallen over backwards.” One feels, throughout, an engaged affection for almost all her characters; she does not so much bare as share in their reversals and mortifications.
In this eagerness both to embarrass and to empathize with her creations, to observe their failings sharply but forgivingly, she shows herself naturally suited to the comedy of manners—a genre nearer to the English literary tradition than the American. She appears much closer in temperament to, say, Austen or Trollope or Forster than to native comic talents like Twain or Bierce or Sinclair Lewis. If pressed to match her with an American forebear, one might call up the all-but-vanished ghost of Booth Tarkington, whose genial, tree-lined streets, abuzz with social missteps and friendly rivalries, have a neighborly kinship to Tyler’s benign Baltimore.
The prominence of her career (all eleven of her previous novels remain in print) highlights the singularity of her position: for many decades now, the sort of amiable social comedy she embodies has been largely set aside by our best writers, who have arguably conceded it to Hollywood. How many American writers of the last half century have brought to their work the sort of brightness and likability, that one finds in the films of, say, Preston Sturges or Ernst Lubitsch?
Tyler’s world has little room for what may be the central preoccupation of so many contemporary novelists: violence. She springs on us few acts of brutality. Her marital discords may run deep, but they are unlikely to end in physical blows; her generational rivalries may be fervent, but they are not murderous. While The Accidental Tourist hinges on an act of unspeakable ferocity (before the novel begins, Macon and Sarah’s twelve-year-old son is gunned down during a holdup at a Burger Bonanza), it is revealing of Tyler’s methods that the killer remains as faceless as an obliterating bolt of lightning or a smothering riptide: he has no age, race, class. Tyler likewise shies from sex. Not much seems to happen in her bedrooms, and when it does the door is likely to be shut and the curtains drawn. The core love story of Morgan’s Passing, for instance, toward whose consummation the reader has been avidly advancing for three hundred pages, undergoes an old-fashioned cinematic fade-out after the first kiss. Her men and women display (if contemporary fiction serves us as any guide) surpassingly controlled libidos. By the time Ian Bedloe reaches the age of forty, he has slept with only two women—which is, apparently, one more than Macon Leary has bedded by a similar age.
An ambitious contemporary writer who stints on sex and violence? What are we to make of this seemingly unfazed, unself-regarding way in which Tyler brings forth one well-constructed, memorable novel after another? Not surprisingly, to some critics her books reveal an essential frivolity or cowardice. Yet in her painstaking delineations of motive and ambition she is, in fact, bold in a number of quiet ways. (One recalls Auden’s remark, about Austen’s unblinking analysis of the roles of money and class in courtship, that James Joyce looks “innocent as grass” beside her.) At a time when much literary criticism and theory stress the insuperable chasms that divide contemporary men and women, Tyler goes on creating male characters of immediate authenticity. Three of her last five novels have taken a man as their protagonist.
Bolder, and more appealing still, is her willingness to cross racial and cultural barriers in pursuit of comedy. A prolonged interlude in Breathing Lessons involves the reciprocal bafflements of two black men—one young and suspicious, the other old and credulous. Both come off looking silly—but this is a book in which everyone winds up looking delightfully silly. Similarly, in Saint Maybe, she makes sport of the frenetic, interchangeable “foreigners” who live down the street from the Bedloes. They are from the Middle East, which is nearly all the solid information we have about them. Their music is “blurred and wandery,” their speech is formal but full of malapropisms, they are a gadget-loving crew given to “hare-brained projects.” And they’re wonderfully funny. Naturally, she has been criticized for making ethnic characters one-dimensional (the critic in the Times Book Review called them “astonishingly caricatured”), an objection that fails to note that most comic characters are what Forster called “flat.” (Can it be said of Mr. Woodhouse in Emma that his personality extends far beyond a fear of drafts?) Tyler is obviously having some good-natured fun with middle-class American incomprehension of the “exotic.” (She’s probably also indulging in a little family joke; a note about the author tells us she is married to an Iranian.) Underlying this willingness of hers to subject Middle Easteners or American blacks to the same sort of comic sendups and pratfalls that she concocts for middle-class white Baltimoreans is an assumption that “foreigners” or blacks are not markedly less funny and foible-ridden than whites—a deeply respectful, even loving, notion.
Tyler’s comic pleasures—her pleasures generally—are rarely concentrated and local. Hers is not the gift of the aphorist; she has neither the fierce concision nor the universalizing grandeur necessary for that job. Nor does she command the dexterity of phrasing by which a commonplace can be dressed up to look witty or discerning. Breathing Lessons is at times a highly comical book—not merely amusing but actually laugh-out-loud funny—and yet its humor is interlinked and situational. It is humor of a type that depends on a sense of accumulated time—of misconceptions and hidden annoyances that have mounted for years and years.
One must add that her sentences also lack the independent luster, the self-generating glow, that makes a reader preserve them for their own sake. The prose of some writers engenders a special excitement (one might mention, restricting oneself to the recently dead, Agee, Nabokov, Cheever, Stafford, O’Connor, Ca-pote), in which we sense that at any moment may arrive a sentence of such rare perfection it will ask to be removed from the page; it will call on us (whether or not we heed its summons) to store it safely away in a diary or a commonplace book. (Updike speaks to this poignancy in Bech: a Book, in which he laments what has “vanished like a good paragraph in a book too bulky to reread.”) Tyler’s prose doesn’t induce this particular thrill. A little magic is often missing when she turns poetical or visionary, as in a sentence like this from Morgan’s Passing: “Everything he looked at seemed luminous and beautiful, and rich with possibilities.” Unfortunately, these are the book’s concluding lines. This lack—a missing music—does have, like many literary shortcomings, its complementary advantages. Tyler’s prose almost never seems labored; it serves rather than contends with the inhabitants of her charming, haunted world.
At a time when aging metropolises across the country dwindle into rubbled ghost towns (in my own native Detroit, the population has declined so precipitously that some waggish demographers have projected a city of zero inhabitants in the next century), the Baltimore of Tyler’s imagination grows larger and richer with time. Her novels continually spill over, so that a neighbor glimpsed briefly down the block, or a shop clerk in a Ma-and-Pa grocery, or an elderly woman tottering toward a park bench, vigorously solicits our attention. In Saint Maybe, for instance, one longs to know what eventually happens to “Rafe Hamnett’s sexy twin ten-year-old daughters,” who are glimpsed at a party “each slinging out a hip and brandishing a paper straw like a cigarette.” Or the fate of Lou of Sid ‘n’ Ed’s A-1 Movers, who is fired for “bleeding all over some lady’s sofa after he sat on his own whiskey flask.”
Tyler’s streets have something of the same throwaway profusion of city streets in real life, where stories are always sliding in and shying off. We stroll such streets—the real or the fictional—looking for clarifications or amplifications that may never come. Following one of her novels to its conclusion, we find that her edges, her peripheral characters, continually beckon—further proof of the skill of the artist holding everything together at the center.