Redhead by the Side of the Road: Inside an Everyman’s mind

P Anima | Updated on November 06, 2020

Like clockwork: All days are the same to Micah Mortimer, only the tasks dier. At 7.15 every morning, he is out on his run   -  ISTOCK.COM

American novelist Anne Tyler continues with her decades-long focus on ordinary folks in her latest work

* “Well, thanks for listening,” she said abruptly. She clicked off

* It is a moment that plays on the reader’s mind long after it has passed, but evidently bothers Micah little

It is the moment when the relationship begins to unravel — apparent to the reader, but not to Micah Mortimer. Anne Tyler’s protagonist, a soon-to-be-43 computer fix-it guy who moonlights as an apartment supervisor, is a man whose “routine is etched in stone”. So when he receives a call from Cassia Slade, his woman friend of three years — Micah refuses to call anyone in her late-30s a girlfriend — when they are both at work, he knows it is unusual, yet fails to respond appropriately. Cass fears she will be evicted from her apartment for keeping a pet on the sly.

“What if I end up homeless?”

“Cass. There are hundreds of people with pets, living all over Baltimore. You’ll find another place, trust me.”

There was a silence, writes Tyler.

“Well, thanks for listening,” she said abruptly. She clicked off.

It is a moment that plays on the reader’s mind long after it has passed, but evidently bothers Micah little as he goes about his business as usual. Tyler masterfully keeps the moment of fissure subtle. Her prose is precise, almost austere, and yet it gently draws the reader into the very ordinary and unremarkable life of Micah Mortimer.

All days are the same to him, only tasks differ. At 7.15 every morning, he is out on his run. At 10 or 10.30 am, “he slaps the magnetic TECH HERMIT sign” on his car and attends service calls. In the afternoon, he potters about the apartment, again sorting days by chores. Monday is trash day, Wednesday, recycling day; at home, Monday is floor-mopping day, Thursday is kitchen day, Friday for vacuum. On his way back from the morning run (he doesn’t wear glasses then as they bob up and down his nose), he often mistakes a certain fire hydrant for “a child or a very short grown-up”. But, by then, Tyler has established that Micah’s vision impairment isn’t just physical; the man who devotes undivided attention to tasks doesn’t do so to people around him.

Redhead by the Side of the Road / Anne Tyler / Penguin Random House / Fiction / ₹599


Redhead by the Side of the Road, Tyler’s 23rd novel, longlisted for the Booker Prize this year, is a fascinating study in characterisation. The American novelist (79) continues to focus on ordinary folks and everyday lives. In a writing career spanning over five decades, the Pulitzer winner’s novels — most often set in Baltimore, where she has lived for over half a century — have explored aspects of American middle-class lives. Unlike A Spool of Blue Thread, Tyler’s 2015 novel shortlisted for the Man Booker, a sprawling family saga across generations, Redhead... is realised on a smaller canvas. In this slim novel (178 pages), Tyler is invested in the mindscape of a single character. She goes about it effortlessly, her long stint as a writer clear and evident, as Micah comes together in the end like a puzzle solved.

Most of Tyler’s novels have ruminated on the workings of the family. Micah is cast outside that mould — an oddball who lives alone, keeps to himself. His neighbours do not know if he even has a family. Yet much of Micah’s present is an intently curated antithesis to his family. His sparse, quiet and obsessively clean place is in stark contrast to sister Ada’s home, where he arrives for a dinner invitation. “In the foyer..., so many sneakers lay heaped on the floor that you would think the house had a no-shoes rule, although it didn’t... No doubt the living room was equally disorganized, but you couldn’t tell, because it was filled wall-to-wall with people.” While Micah is his own man, his four sisters wait tables. Mostly alone, he is content talking to himself as he cleans, mops and drives to work. His sisters and their families, on the other hand, are a boisterous lot. Typically, he lives in a basement, ducking everyone’s line of vision. His family finds him odd, but is fond of him.

Much of what happens in Redhead... spans a few days, but the past flits in and out, and upturns the carefully constructed order of Micah’s present. A rich college kid lands up at his doorstep and wonders if Micah is his father. Interactions with the boy’s mother, Lorna Bartell, suggest Micah may have painted the past with strokes too broad.

In the final chapter, Tyler returns to the opening lines of the novel. “You have to wonder what goes through the mind of such a man.” Yet, much has changed for Micah, the comfort of routine now hangs heavy, the morning air smells of diesel, he has skipped his shave and appears dirty. For a novel characterised by restraint, Tyler goes for a dramatic, sweetened finish. It is a criticism that has come Tyler’s way often enough — the urge to be cute. In a rare interview to The Guardian in 2012, the reclusive author agrees that the view that her novels “offer milk and cookies” might just be true. “It is probably that I just want to be with nice people, which sounds very milk and cookies, I know,” she says. Tyler remains preoccupied with her male protagonist in Redhead..., consequently Micah Mortimer is finely etched, but others — Cass, for instance — less so. Micah’s sisters are just the loud, warm family props.

Yet, Tyler’s craft is crisp and taut as ever. Redhead... celebrates second chances — both sought and given.

P Anima

Published on November 06, 2020

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