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Redhead By The Side Of The Road by Anne Tyler — clueless in Baltimore

Cover of Redhead By The Side Of The Road by Anne Tyler - a sympathetic portrait of a man on the fringe of life

Redhead By The Side Of The Road joins the long list of novels I’ve read featuring people who are out of kilter with the world and disconnected from the people around them.

The focus for this novel is Micah Mortimer, a 40 something-year-old who runs a one-man computer repair service (aptly named “Tech Hermit”) in Baltimore. His clients (mostly older women) have very basic problems so the business doesn’t bring in much of an income. So Micah has a second job as handyman and caretaker for his apartment block.

He’s unmarried though in a relationship with Cass, a ““restful to look at”” schoolteacher. He deems it inappropriate at his age to call her his girlfriend, preferring the “lady friend”  tag. Micah hasn’t enjoyed a great deal of success with women over the years:

The thing about old girlfriends, Micah reflected, is that each one subtracts something from you. You say goodbye to your first great romance and move on to the next, but you find you have less to give to the next. A little chip of you has gone missing; you’re not quite so wholly there in the new relationship. And less there in the one after that, and even less in the one after that one.

His relationship with Cass has solidified, honed “down to a system” he admits. Just like other parts of his life, it’s based on rules. For Micah is a creature of habit, a man who likes things to be “etched in stone”.

Everything in his house and in his life has its place and each day is part of a strict cleaning schedule. Monday is floor-mopping day, Thursday is designated “kitchen day” while Fridays are reserved for vacuuming.

Two events threw this calm, ordered existence into turmoil.

First a confused teenager turns up on his doorstep, having absconded from school, believing Micah to be his real father. To Micah’s consternation the boy somehow ends up staying in his spare room.

Almost immediately Cass announces that she is likely to be evicted from her apartment, leaving her with no-where to live.

Does Micah get the hint? Does he throw open his doors to welcome Cass to his home? Not exactly because Micah has rather a blind spot when it comes to picking up clues and understanding other people.

Sometimes when he was dealing with people, he felt like he was operating one of those claw machines on a boardwalk, those shovel things where you tried to scoop up a prize but the controls were too unwieldy and you worked at too great a remove.

Redhead By The Side Of The Road is essentially a story of how a good and well-meaning man comes to realise that there is more to life than structure and rules. The very things he has believed give him peace and certainty, have made him lonely and empty.

It’s an easy read, humorous in a gentle way and sympathetic towards a man who didn’t how to connect with the world or how to find joy and happiness.  Micah is an observer, not a participant in life. He even observes his own driving, imagining how it would be viewed by a surveillance system, awarding himself brownie points for not jamming on the brakes and also for proper use of indicator signals.

But there is a hint in the title of the book that Micah’s perception of the world is flawed. He literally doesn’t see what is obvious to everyone else, including the reader.

An enjoyable book though I’m puzzled why it was longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020. I did warm to Micah and can see why readers would be hoping he can turn his life around. Tyler’s ability to capture a character with only a few words is remarkable but overall this didn’t seem that special a book to me. Especially when you think about some of the other longlisted titles that year that had considerably more heft.

This is the second book by Anne Tyler I’ve read now (the first was A Spool of Blue Thread). I’m not convinced yet that she’s to my taste but it may be that I just haven’t found the right book yet.

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