Micah Mortimer might be, in his own peculiar way, a man for our time.
The protagonist of Anne Tyler’s new novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road, takes satisfaction in habit. His daily run, his weekly cycle of household chores, his low-pressure work, his comfortable dates with his longtime woman friend — “he refused to call anyone in her late thirties a ‘girlfriend,’” Tyler writes — he’s got everything under control.
These days we’re all learning just what an illusion control over our lives can be. Micah learns it on a smaller, pandemic-free scale, but it’s disruptive, and maybe freeing, all the same.
This is the 23rd novel by Tyler, who has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (for Breathing Lessons) and a stack of other awards for her books. Like many of her novels, Redhead by the Side of the Road is set in Baltimore, where she lives, and focuses on family relationships. It’s a short book — at 178 pages, closer to novella length than novel — but Tyler’s prose is crafted like the cabin of a sailboat, with no space wasted, and packed with telling details.
At age 44, Micah has found his niche, and he likes it. He lives in a spartan apartment rent-free because he’s the super for the building, a job that doesn’t demand much. He’s also the proprietor and sole employee of the aptly named Tech Hermit, making house calls to revive crashed laptops and patiently explain to clients that buying a new printer is cheaper than fixing the old one.
He prides himself on doing things right (not always the same as doing the right thing). “When Micah was behind the wheel,” Tyler writes, “he liked to pretend he was being evaluated by an all-seeing surveillance system. Traffic God, he called it. Traffic God was operated by a fleet of men in shirtsleeves and green visors who frequently commented to one another on the perfection of Micah’s driving. ‘Notice how he uses his turn signal even when no one’s behind him,’ they would say.”
Even his mistakes are predictable, or so he thinks. The book’s title might sound like the beginning of a chance romance, but no. During his morning run, Micah always comes down the same hill and makes “his usual mistake of imagining for a second that a certain fire hydrant, faded to the pinkish color of an aged clay flowerpot, was a child or a very short grown-up. ... What was that little redhead doing by the side of the road? Because even though he knew by now that it was only a hydrant, still, for one fleeting instant he had the same delusion all over again, every single morning.”
The first crack in his cocoon is a big one: A teenager turns up on his doorstep, claiming to be Micah’s son. Brink Adams is “a rich kid, Micah saw. Handsome, in that polished and privileged sort of way.” Brink’s mother, Lorna Bartell, was one of Micah’s girlfriends in college, but he hasn’t heard from her in decades and knows nothing about her son. Brink has run away from home after screwing up his first semester at college and ends up, to Micah’s chagrin, crashing in his guest room and refusing to answer frantic texts from Lorna.
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At the same time, Micah’s relationship with Cass, his “woman friend,” is shaken up when she finds out she might be evicted from her own apartment. Cass, who teaches fourth grade, is more tolerant of disorder than Micah is, but this problem has complications Micah doesn’t foresee.
We understand the source of Micah’s thirst for order when Tyler sends him to a rollicking family celebration. He’s the youngest of five children and the only male, and the only one of his large clan who doesn’t live in loud and happy chaos.
The occasion is the engagement of his sister Ada’s son. Joey is unemployed and living at home, and he announces his betrothal to a girl none of the family has met by casually suggesting he needs to trade out his twin bed for a double.
That calls for a family dinner — all four sisters and their husbands (one of whom is called Kegger), their kids, kids’ friends, grandkids, dogs and, of course, the young fiancee: “Micah had the impression that this was the first time she’d been out on her own among grown-ups.”
Micah dreads the party, not least because he knows he’ll be bombarded with advice. Not only are his sisters far more upset about his problems with Cass than he is; they also seize on the implications of Lorna’s reappearance. “Micah could never get over how his sisters appeared to retain every personal detail about everyone they’d ever met. Shouldn’t they be periodically cleaning out their memory caches or something?”
Micah will discover that his own memory cache might be faulty, and that he doesn’t recognize all of his delusions as readily as he does that fire hydrant. Tyler is always tender with her characters, but, like Micah’s sisters, she knows when they need a good hard push into the unknown.
Redhead by the Side of the Road
By Anne Tyler
Knopf, 178 pages, $26.95