Anne Tyler’s new novel speculates a clash of perceptions between how men and women see events unfolding around their lives
This is the story of a man in his early 40s whose existence flits between feeling lonely and alone. The two states are not diametrically in opposition to each other, but they are not the same either. The difference is important and central to the story of Redhead by the Side of the Road.
Micah Mortimer’s life has not panned out as he had wanted. Starting as a bright computer science student, going into a startup tech business with a wealthy partner, he walked away to end up as Tech Hermit answering random calls from people who need their computer and printer problems fixed. He lives in a basement apartment of a building rent-free in exchange for serving as the manager. The youngest after four sisters, Micah can’t seem to hold on to a woman although even before he became a teenager “not even fully aware of sex, he had already longed to have a girl of his very own.”
The latest disruption, the one we witness in the narrative, is caused by a young boy, Brink, a runaway, who shows up outside Micah’s patch one morning out of the blue, claiming to be his son because he learned that Micah was the love of his mother’s life when she was young. Quick math puts that speculation to rest, but Micah ends up acquiescing to let him use the guest room just when Cass, his woman friend, is dealing with the fear of being evicted. Cass sees that as a signal from Micha that she is not welcome to move in with him, and no pleading, no amount of explanation would help change her mind. The case is closed. That’s the thick of it.
Micah, in his moments of solitude, looks back, wondering why women would leave him on one pretext or another. There are differences between Cass and him, but they are minor. There’s more care for the suffering in Cass’s worldview than that of Micah’s and he knows it, but their relationship has worked so far because both, as adults, recognise and respect each other’s physical and emotional space. But is there any place in Micah’s world for flexibility, for bending of the rules?
Anne Tyler, one of the most loved American authors of more than 20 novels, does not let the narrative either spin out of control or descend to irreversible tragedy. For the most part, it simmers on a constant low flame. The runaway boy is reunited with his mother and adoptive father, who develops respect for Micah. Cass takes Micah back. Brink’s mother and Micah’s college sweetheart, Lorna Bartell, is allowed to share her perspective with Micah of how and why their relationship fell apart.
This idea of a clash of perceptions between how men and women see certain events unfolding around their lives seems like a common theme now and brings to mind Clifford Garstang’s The Shaman of Turtle Valley, whose protagonist, Aiken, has a similar problem vis a vis the two most important women in his life with a far more serious issue on hand.
Micah’s problem stems from two things: aversion to chaos and his belief that one must do something, arrange one’s life in order to defeat chaos; and, secondly, his inability to see why another person may not mind chaos or not have the tools to do anything about it. That’s where the title acquires its importance. In awe of self-discipline and routine, Micah, whose eyesight has deteriorated, mistakes, almost every day, a fire hydrant for a small redhead. It’s a metaphor for not being able to see things for what they are. It is also possible that a deeper reading would show that Tyler is on to something regarding a relationship between orderliness and self-righteousness, but this review offers us neither enough space nor time to dig in that direction.
There are two telling scenes where Tyler offers us a window on how Micah relates to chaos. When, as per their regular arrangement, Cass and Micah get together after work, he asks her what a particular student, Deemolay, had been up to. Deemolay is her most troubled, most disruptive student. Deemolay caused chaos the instant he entered the classroom, but he lived in a car with his grandmother and Micah knew Cass had a soft spot in her heart for him. To expect the young student to change the chaos in his life would be irrational. Cass knows, Micah doesn’t. After they finish eating, Cass leaves the plates in a pile on the counter.
In a latter scene and one of the most endearing ones too, Micah joins his family because his sister Ada’s youngest child is getting married and the family wants to meet the woman named Lily. Casual talk leads to Micah explaining to Lily the chaos he grew up in after Dave, one of his brothers-in-law cracks a joke that Micah does his laundry every Monday: “And there wasn’t a china cupboard or a food cupboard but just cupboards, . . . everything jammed in wherever it could fit or else left out on the counter. And supper might be at five pm or eight or not at all. And the dirty dishes piled up in the sink till there weren’t any clean ones left; you had to run a used bowl under the faucet when you wanted your morning cornflakes.”
I have never read another novel in English by an American writer where closeness among siblings, their spouses, children and grandchildren is as if the scene was unfolding in Lahore. It was the most endearing part of the novel to me as a reader.
“I’m not saying I had a hard childhood,” Micah said. “My childhood was fine. Mom and Dad were great. I’m just saying when you grow up in that kind of chaos you vow to do things differently once you’re on your own.”
“Then how about me?” Ada asked him . . . “I grew up in chaos too, didn’t I? Suze and the twins grew up in chaos. None of us are fussbudgets.”
It is only towards the end as he deals with his loneliness once again that he realises while glancing around his apartment that “under the surface . . . he was more like his family than he cared to admit. Maybe he was one skipped vacuuming day away from total chaos. He had a sudden vision of himself as he’d been the previous evening, slumped on the couch drinking too many beers and playing too many games of Spider.”
Micah, it seems, also doesn’t bother to understand how different circumstances, or chaos, do or don’t allow a person to change or “do things differently.” Deemolay may never have the chance to survive how Micah was able to. Micah lacks empathy, despite being a good-hearted person, to fully visualise Deemolay’s chaos. A fire hydrant is a source of water despite its hard exterior and the little redhead Micah sees is nothing but his own self, his own hardened self without allowing to feel the water within. Major writers also don’t just choose names for their characters. Micah is a question: who is like a God? And it is a reference to when stubborn men stop being human. It is only after self-examination that he decides to visit Cass and it is only after a fall that Cass comes out and pick him up before they walk away holding each other.
It is a delightful slim novel and a pleasure to read. I have never read another novel in English by an American writer where closeness among siblings, their spouses, children and grandchildren is as if the scene was unfolding in Lahore. It was the most endearing part of the novel to me as a reader. On the other hand, the novel misses an opportunity to show the reader the collective political consciousness of Micah’s family. They come across as good-hearted but ignorant of the political forces shaping their livelihoods. It also doesn’t challenge the reader’s comfort zone. That aspect left me a bit less satisfied.
I appreciate how Tyler tests the reader’s male-centric sense of perception by invoking the redhead standing by the side of the road, only to create a device by which Micah must look inward to get in touch with the feminine side of his personality, the water, hidden inside a fire hydrant, the tears behind the facade of toughness, the toxic masculinity.
Redhead by the Side of the Road
Author: Anne Tyler
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
The writer is a librarian and lecturer in San Francisco. His most recent work is Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories. He blogs at moazzamsheikh.blogspot.com