Veteran Anne Tyler’s latest work is one of the 13 titles on this year’s Booker longlist
At a time when nothing is certain, it is comforting to read about a man whose routine is etched in stone. Meet Micah Mortimer, the Tech Hermit — also the name of his company — who likes things to be definite and fears making missteps on the road and everywhere else.
Micah, 43 on his next birthday, is not exactly a painful stick-in-the-mud. He likes repairing computers so he can be his own boss, has four sisters who are fond of him, finicky habits and all (he marks days for specific chores) and is comfortable with restful-to-look-at Cass.
Unlucky with girls before, he and Cass have it “down to a system” after three years together. Tall, with not-so-good posture and a clamped-looking mouth, he reads mysteries and biographies from the free-book place and replaces them when done so as not to clutter the basement unit he gets to stay in for free for serving as superintendent at a small apartment building in a nondescript Baltimore neighbourhood. The worst one could say about Micah is that he is ordinary.
That is the reason most of us, Janes and Joes leading ordinary lives, can relate to the protagonist in Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road, one of the Booker 13. Tyler draws Micah out slowly in this slim novel and as we warm to him, we begin to wonder if there is more to him than meets the eye. He talks to himself in foreign accents while cleaning house and imagines a Traffic God looking down approvingly as he cruises around on calls, pulls to a perfect stop at the lights, or abides by the rules even with no one watching.
Just as we think we have him down pat, a stranger appears on his doorstep. Brink, 18 and “sick of being wrong all the time”, has run away from home. He thinks Micah — the love of his mother Lorna Bartell’s life, she says — is his real father and hopes for commiseration, maybe even accommodation.
Before Micah can truly register Brink’s existence, Cass, worried about being evicted from her apartment and upset that he has not asked her to move in with him, tells Micah it is best they break up. This sudden turn of events makes him look into himself at old assumptions and wrongs done him, and reach out to people from his past and present to make sense of what is going on.
Tyler’s spot-on descriptions of the people Micah meets are most engaging in this book that is easy to read, only because its veteran author is wise to what matters. She uses simple words loaded with meaning, adding subtle gestures that say as much. Micah recognising his old flame by her stillness when Lorna turns up to take Brink home, and tenant Yolanda hoping something might work out every time she meets an internet date, linger in the mind.
When Micah asks about learning from experience, Yolanda replies: “Give up and play dead, is what you mean.”
On his daily runs, Micah, whose vision is failing, repeatedly mistakes, albeit momentarily, a hydrant for a redhead. It strikes him that all his thoughts are repetitious and how, like them, his entire life runs in a deep rut. That same morning, he overhears one woman telling another, “People can be so ... unexpected, really” — contrasting reflections that lead to how Micah handles his predicament.
Trouble-shooting computer problems for old ladies is Micah’s bread and butter — they could refer to his manual, First, Plug It In, and save themselves the bill, he thinks — though he does not care for their natter. But beneath his reserve and reticence is a heart.
Luella Carter, a once-heavy woman sunken by cancer, tells him about getting “so angry I could spit” hearing her husband snore like a motorboat while she could not sleep a wink. Micah assumes she does not know what was causing her anger, and we understand his shame when she casually lets on that she does.
Fellow British writer Rachel Joyce says Tyler “takes the ordinary, the small, and makes them sing”. She does, and you hum along. There are moments when you wait and hope for a crescendo to lift you to a breathless high or another plane altogether.
That does not happen, but there are sparkling notes in this gentle, familiar story that readers will be quite happy to bury their nose in. Redhead by the Side of the Road affirms what most of us know but sometimes forget: Life happens and things go wrong. We can choose to nurse a broken heart or get on with it and hope the pieces mend, not perfectly perhaps, but well enough so we can hum again