Meaningful moments at the foot of the cellar steps

Breathing Lessons, by Anne Tyler. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 330 pp. $18.95. In this day of big-bucks promotional publishing, a scattering of authors still need little introduction and even less hype. Anne Tyler's name on a book jacket, for one, has always meant meaningful, entertaining reading inside, and her latest novel delivers on both counts.

Tyler has been called a Southern writer, in the tradition of storyteller Carson McCullers. Her work could also be compared to the domestic novels of Eudora Welty, who has penned such precise portraits of small-town life and lineage.

Although Tyler has not yet achieved the literary magnitude of these two writers, each novel takes her several steps closer to their ranks. She's always had a good eye for telling gestures and a good ear for the kind of conversation that cries out for eavesdropping, and in ``Breathing Lessons'' she raises both devices to new narrative heights.

Like most of her 10 previous books, this novel is set in Baltimore (where she lives with her husband and two daughters); and it bears familiar Tyler trademarks: It's about families, and it is by turns simple, wise, funny, touching, and real.

The comical, lurching pace of the story is set in the opening pages, as 48-year-old Maggie Moran cruises out of Harbor Body and Fender, ``a woman in charge of herself, for once, lipsticked and medium-heeled and driving an undented car.'' The operative phrase here is ``for once.'' In a matter of seconds, Maggie hears some startling news on the car radio, slams on the accelerator instead of the brake pedal, and sideswipes a passing Pepsi truck.

Undaunted, if not undented, she stares ``straight ahead in a dignified way'' and drives on in her elderly, gray-blue Dodge, stopping once she's out of sight of the frantic garage mechanic and truck driver to straighten the rim of the fender.

Tyler is known for offbeat characters, and Maggie Moran is one of her most endearing. A longtime aide at Silver Threads Nursing Home, she's a self-described ``harum-scarum klutzy mother'' with a heart of lumpy gold. When she's not falling in love with a 70-year-old patient, she's throwing open windows at home and trying to air out the lives of the various members of her extended family. As husband Ira puts it, ``She thinks the people she loves are better than they really are, and so then she starts changing things around to suit her view of them.''

Ira is another likable Tyler original - a middle-aged shopkeeper, close-mouthed, apparently aloof, and generally disappointed in life (``Once he had planned to find a cure for some major disease and now he was framing petit point instead''). He may cringe when Maggie pours her heart out to a new acquaintance, but he's always there, by her side, when she needs him most. What's more, Ira never complains - he simply lets favorite tunes from the '50s and '60s voice his various disgruntlements: ``...he whistled `This Old House' while he tackled a minor repair job, or `The Wichita Lineman' whenever he helped bring in the laundry.''

Snatches of half-remembered refrains echo through these chapters like heralding silver bells. Says Maggie to her grown son, Jesse, at one point: ``Music is so different now. It used to be `Love Me Forever' and now it's `Help Me Make It Through the Night.'''

It's a throwaway line that makes a significant point. For it is the sometimes grouchy, continually tested, maddeningly ambiguous, and often wordlessly loving relationship that Maggie and Ira have forged through 30 years of marriage that primes the well of this engaging novel. As we follow the Morans through a single eventful day, from a morning funeral to an afternoon stop at the home of their estranged daughter-in-law, we side first with one, and then the other. It's not a matter of who's to blame or who's to praise - to the author's great credit, we want to see both Maggie and Ira survive their chaotic surroundings intact and ride off together into their sunset years.

Tyler is adept at turning the ordinary into the appealing, and she may well be the first novelist to probe for meaningful moments at the foot of the cellar steps. One afternoon, after her son's family has moved out and her daughter is about to leave for college, Maggie switches off the basement dehumidifier, ``and even that absence had struck her. She had mourned in the most personal way the silencing of the steady, faithful whir that used to thrum the floorboards. What on earth was wrong with her? she had wondered. Would she spend the rest of her days grieving for every loss equally - a daughter-in-law, a baby, a cat, a machine that dries the air out? Was this how it felt to grow old?''

As they grow older, crankier, and eventually wiser together, Maggie and Ira often appear to be drifting from one muddle to another: ``Oh, Ira, what are we two going to live for, all the rest of our lives?'' a bewildered Maggie asks in the final pages. Ira replies by reaching out with one hand and drawing her close, even as he reaches with the other hand to transfer a four of spades to a five in the elaborate solitaire game he's playing.

With moves like that, one gets the feeling they'll make out just fine.

Diane Manuel reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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