A Middle-Class Misfit's Search For Self-Respect
A PATCHWORK PLANET
288 pp., $24.50
'A Patchwork Planet" opens and closes with this protest: "I am a man you can trust." Barnaby Gaitlin understands the full value of trust, and between the covers of Anne Tyler's latest novel, he tells a story of hard won redemption in the face of withering doubts.
Everything about Barnaby's upbringing in a gracious Baltimore neighborhood promised a successful life. His family even keeps a book of narratives about their encounters with guardian angels, strangers who have passed on wise advice about careers and investments.
They live off the fortune Great-Granddad made by accepting a mysterious woman's recommendation to produce painted mannequins. Over the years, Barnaby's proper family members have become the perfect wooden models of refined suburban life.
Barnaby, however, is the black sheep of the family. Rebelling against stultifying standards he could not meet, he drifted into a life of recreational crime, a series of thrill rides and neighborhood burglaries that humiliated his colorless family and cost them thousand of dollars to cover up.
The novel, Tyler's 14th, opens when Barnaby is living in a rented basement room, too hopeless even to make New Year's resolutions. While his companion hooligans have ascended to financial prosperity, Barnaby has worked at "Rent-a-Back" for 11 years, doing household chores for elderly and disabled clients.
He receives little encouragement from his passive-aggressive father or his anxious mother, a social climber who holds old sins and legal debts over Barnaby's head as a way of maintaining her dispiriting control.
While his father and brother enjoy the prestigious offices of the Gaitlin Charitable Foundation, Barnaby receives only criticism for doing the ordinary charitable acts that make these old people's lives livable.
Tyler has a perfect ear for the bland cruelty people sometimes deliver to those they love. "He has deliberately chosen employment that has no lasting point to it," his mother says at his birthday party, "no reputation, no future, in preference to work that's of permanent significance. And he's doing it purely for spite."
In fact, Barnaby's work stems from something very different from spite. Much of his life in this subtle novel involves his odd jobs for people who couldn't otherwise maintain their homes. He shops, cleans gutters, rearranges furniture, puts up Christmas decorations, and in many cases provides the only compassionate, reliable presence in these people's lives.
On the train to visit a daughter he barely knows, Barnaby befriends a tidy bank clerk who he suspects might be his guardian angel. After so many years of solitary labor, Barnaby certainly deserves the affection this woman offers, but when she reveals her own doubts about his honesty, Barnaby must finally decide whether to give up the moral struggle or persevere for his own sake.
Readers unfamiliar with this Pulitzer Prize-winner's work might not think this is a very promising world to enter, but Tyler is our national specialist at portraying and healing the pain of middle-class misfits. She's a master at bitter-sweet comedy, and Barnaby's shaky efforts to maintain his self-respect provide the quiet uplift her best work always delivers.
Redemption, Tyler suggests, isn't won through a triumphant act of goodness or sacrifice, but through a lifetime of decency and compassion.
Barnaby's favorite old client laughs about the patchwork design of the earth she's been adding to a quilt. "One little measly blue planet," she says, "and it's taking me forever!" Tyler understands this modest world, both its frustrations and its rewards. With each funny, painful novel, she adds another square to her tapestry of redemption.
This is a book you can trust.
* Ron Charles teaches English at The John Burroughs School in St. Louis.