“Redhead by the Side of the Road” is the heartwarming, puzzling and ultimately all-too-brief novel I didn’t know I needed. Longlisted for the Booker Prize this year, “Redhead” is the twenty-third novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler. Setting the scene in a bleakly average neighborhood in Baltimore, Tyler tells the story of Micah Mortimer, a fastidious, habitual man in his early forties forced to grapple with unexpected events and unrealized emotions. Laden with perceptive observation and warm humor, Tyler’s self-contained story about an eccentric man’s problems is a soothing tonic for readers frazzled by the extremes of 2020.
Escapism is said to be the dominant motive among casual fiction readers. They want grand plots accompanying dramatic tales of intrigue and adventure. In short, they want books to be movies. If that’s what you want, “Redhead” isn’t the book for you. “Redhead by the Side of the Road” is fundamentally a story about ordinary people. The novel is centered around Micah’s interactions with others. His conversations, often brief but always pointed, provide the glimpses into Micah’s soul that form the essence of the book.
“He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.” With this inauspicious beginning, Tyler makes clear the invariable simplicity of Micah’s life. A solitary man self-employed as an IT consultant, the name of his business, “Tech Hermit,” proves an apt description of his personality. Micah moonlights as the superintendent of a small apartment building, where he lives rent-free in the basement. Ever pragmatic, the furnishings are modest but pristine. He has a girlfriend, Cass. A calm, matronly woman, their love can best be described as a simmer, with Cass rarely spending the night. Micah’s preferred form of entertainment most nights after Cass leaves is playing solitaire on his phone. Tyler’s pointed inclusion of this detail ensures the irony isn’t lost on the reader — there’s something to be said about a man who, in the age of the internet, chooses to play solitaire.
To say Micah is a man of habits is an understatement. Monday is floor mopping day. Tuesday is laundry day, and so forth. At a family gathering, Micah’s brother-in-law smirks at his cleaning schedule, asking if Thursday was window washing day. “Well,” said Micah begrudgingly. “It’s kitchen day as it happens.” Micah’s failure to see the humor is unsurprising; for him, chores are no joking matter. Without fail, he begins every day with a run, a shower, breakfast and then chores, in that order. Characteristically, “He hated when something interrupted the normal progression.” So Micah is flummoxed when Cass tells him she’s being evicted from her apartment, and a teenager named Brink knocks on his door, asking for shelter and claiming to be his long-lost son from a prior relationship. Micah, to his inner dismay, acquiesces reluctantly. Brink’s presence soon interrupts the steady current of Micah’s life and forces him to reflect on the course of his life. These reflections reveal bits of Micah’s past identity, including a nostalgic vision of how he met Cass. By introducing Micah piecemeal to us, Tyler builds a sense of intrigue around a character who’s supposed to be boring. I hungered to learn more about Micah and each reflection brought me closer to understanding him.
Threading the disparate sections of the novel together — Micah’s interactions with Brink, his struggles with Cass and the daily tasks of his tech business — is Micah’s inability to perceive the people around him. This social blindness isn’t fully lost on Micah; “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.” A glimpse of self-awareness occasionally shines through Micah’s opaque fabric, but this isn’t enough to compensate for his misperceptions. After botching an interaction with Brink, Micah experiences a raw moment, equal parts helplessness and clarity: “He had handled this all wrong, he realized. But even given a second chance, he wasn’t sure what he’d do differently.” This sense of being on the edge of understanding — reaching, grasping, but never quite finding a secure handhold — defines Micah’s struggle with the others around him. Tyler’s adept depiction of this struggle, as comical as it is sorrowful, is the greatest gift she imparts to the reader.
Lulls in the story are rare due to the brevity of Tyler’s 170-page novel, but the few that exist are filled by Tyler’s evocative writing. A master at descriptive storytelling, Tyler creates characters so tangible I felt as though they existed beyond the confines of the page. Describing Micah’s brother-in-law, she writes, “A burly, gray-bearded man with a denim apron strained across his beachball stomach, he appeared in the dining-room doorway holding a foot-and-a-half-long spatula, ‘Bro!” he shouted. ‘High Time you got here!’” With such expressive description, each character is vivid and memorable.
Throughout the book, Tyler’s writing carries the story without excess drama, suiting Micah’s matter-of-fact tone. Her prose is without pretension, her sentences sparse and warm. There isn’t a single ominous sentence in the book — a refreshing occurrence in a genre bursting with gritty, emotional tales. While reading “Redhead by the Side of the Road,” I could feel my blood pressure dropping. Tyler’s control of the story, natural characterization and fluid writing combine to create an inherently relaxing read.
“Redhead by the Side of the Road” works because it is so relatable. Not to suggest Micah is relatable; he isn’t. But everyone has an obnoxious brother-in-law, a regrettable ex, a crazy old aunt. And everyone wishes their life had a bit more meaning, “a single succinct theory of everything” to unite it. We’ve all had doubts about the direction our lives have taken and Micah is no exception. “Really, his life was good. He had no reason to feel unhappy,” he concludes, brushing his doubts aside. Tyler ingeniously expresses something many of us feel but rarely question — a vague sense of dissatisfaction we often feel compelled to push aside, rather than reflect upon. By describing Micah’s struggle to find meaning and connect with others, Tyler has written a book that will leave a lasting impression on all who read it. More lo-fi than hi-key compared to the other long-listed novels, look out for ‘Redhead’ as an underdog contender for the Booker Prize this November.
Daily Arts Writer Sam Matthisson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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