Best seller What to keep -- what to lose

The Accidental Tourist, by Anne Tyler. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 254 pp. $16.95. The gift of the family novelist is to turn the cleaning of a closet into an inventory of love and loss -- to scan a poem from a shopping list. No chronicler of family today surpasses Anne Tyler at converting the ordinariness of everyday life into the stuff of destiny, and she does it all at a level consistent with her subject -- by quiet, caring attention to details.

In ``The Accidental Tourist,'' Miss Tyler's 10th novel, the walls of family life have crumbled around Macon and Sarah Leary, a Baltimore couple devastated by the murder of their 12-year-old son, Ethan, in a fast-food outlet. Now, a year later, the heavy presence of Ethan's absence still permeates their lives. But instead of drawing the couple together, the tragedy has pulled them apart, and Sarah leaves. ``You're not a comfort, Macon,'' she tells him.

Alone with his inexpressible grief, Macon, who has ``always had a fondness for method,'' becomes obsessed with systematizing his household chores. He washes the day's dirty clothes by sloshing them around underfoot in the shower. He avoids bedmaking by stitching folded sheets into what he calls the Macon Leary Body Bag (``unmussable, easily changeable''). He rigs up a continuous feeder for dog food in the basement. No effort is too great, no invention too silly, if it offers any hope of saving time and work.

Yet for all his determined activism in arranging household details, Macon remains strangely passive about his own life. His name, in fact, suits him perfectly. Macon Leary is leery -- of people, commitment, involvement. He is wary, some days, of life itself.

He also hates to travel, which makes him oddly suited for his profession: writing guidebooks for business travelers who want ``to pretend they had never left home.'' His series of ``Accidental Tourist'' books bear as their logo a winged armchair, which Macon's boss explains thus: ``While armchair travelers dream of going places, traveling armchairs dream of staying put.''

Macon the traveler is as unimaginative as Macon the husband. On planes he always hides behind the same book, ``Miss MacIntosh, My Darling.'' In France he always orders only Salade Nioise. And always he starts ``itching to go home too early'' -- back to what Sarah bitterly refers to as his ``little routines and rituals,'' his ``depressing habits.''

When, between trips, Macon injures himself in a fall, he retreats to the family home his sister and two brothers still share. There he finds comfort in old childhood games, his siblings' indecision (``Was it better to lower the thermostat at night, or not?''), and his sister's alphabetized kitchen (``you'd find the allspice next to the ant poison''). There too, he notes with quiet satisfaction, ``everything's under control.''

Everything, that is, except Edward, his unruly Welsh corgi. To tame him, Macon hires Muriel Pritchett, a dog trainer at the Meow-Bow kennel. A thin young woman with frizzy black hair, Muriel is a most unlikely candidate for Macon's attentions. She is from the wrong side of Baltimore. She talks too much. And she is ``interested in the appearance of things, only the appearance: in lipstick shades and nail wrappings and facial masques and split ends.''

But despite all their differences, these two lonely people with their accidental careers -- Macon the travel writer who dislikes travel, Muriel the animal trainer who has never really liked animals -- find a tentative bond in their separate sorrows.

As Macon travels across town to Muriel's run-down house on Singleton Street -- ``this worn, sad street where nothing went right for anyone, where the men had dead-end jobs or none at all and the women were running to fat and the children were turning out badly'' -- he begins a journey of the heart as confusing as any trip he has ever taken. And as Muriel gradually thaws Macon's long-frozen feelings, he in turn begins to free her frail young son from the bonds of a constricted childhood. A wholeness deve lops that partially releases all three from the tyranny of the past.

Ultimately, what Macon chooses to keep and what he chooses to lose give the book a painful, surprising ending. But in the choosing he demonstrates a capacity for hope and healing. No longer can anyone accuse him, as Sarah once did, of being ``a dried up kernel of a man whom nothing can penetrate.''

Early in the novel, when Anne Tyler describes Macon's travel writing, she notes how he loves ``stripping away the inessential and second-rate, classifying all that remained in neat, terse paragraphs.'' The words stand as a fitting description of her own work as well. She has become our leading celebrator of the domestic heart.

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