Anne Tyler writes the opposite of alpha heroes. Not only do they not save the world, they can barely face another day in it. (Omega sounds too impressive, beta too fishy, delta too military, and gamma reminds me of The Hulk. I believe I shall christen them epsilon heroes.)
“I am not especially unhappy, but I don’t see any particular reason to go on living,” Liam Pennywell thinks in Noah’s Compass, Tyler’s 18th novel. Fans of the Pulitzer Prize winner will instantly recognize Liam as another of Tyler’s deeply repressed, inarticulate characters, and will want to embrace this “puddle of a man.” Others will just want to wallop him upside the head. Never fear. Someone does that for you.
Liam, 60, has been fired from his job as a fifth-grade teacher at a second-rate private school. (He was supposed to be a philosopher. It didn’t work out.) Getting into the spirit of downsizing, he pares down his possessions until they fit in U-Haul’s “second-smallest truck” and moves to a beige-carpeted starter apartment, complete with a built-in tie rack. From this vantage point, he plans to sit in a chair and sum up his life. At this point, a reader could be forgiven for thinking that might take all of 20 minutes.
Liam goes to sleep in his new apartment and wakes up in the hospital with a bandaged head and hand and no memory of the night before.
Everyone from his doctor to his ex-wife and three disaffected daughters views this as a blessing. Liam was attacked by an intruder, who came in through his unlocked patio doors. Who would want total recall of such an event? “Shoot,” his one friend, Bundy, tells him about his missing night, “that happens to me just about every weekend. No big deal about that.”
For Liam, not knowing is a bigger trauma than the head wound. “A hole, it felt like. A hole in his mind, full of empty blue rushing air.” Even more than who attacked him, Liam wants to know how he “comported” himself. At a neurologist’s office, Liam sees a professional “rememberer,” hired by an aging millionaire to serve as his external hard drive. He becomes fixated, seeing the frumpy Eunice as a talisman who will somehow supply the key that gives him back his memory.
And improbably, she does, though not in ways either Liam or a reader is expecting. (Long-time fans will catch echoes of “The Accidental Tourist,” but Tyler is headed in a different direction this time.)
What a reader slowly comes to understand is that the attack is practically the only part of his life that Liam wants to remember. “You’re missing lots of chunks!” the neurologist reassures him. “But you don’t dwell on those, now, do you?” Maybe, Tyler gently suggests, he should.
The book takes its title from a biblical discussion Liam has with his grandson about whether Noah was steering his ark, or just bobbing up and down in the flood.
“Noah didn’t need to figure out directions, because the whole world was underwater and so it made no difference,” Liam tells Jonah. “There wasn’t anywhere to go. He was just trying to stay afloat.”
What makes Tyler, who won the Pulitzer for 1989’s “Breathing Lessons,” so unusual a writer is her empathy for the bobbers of this world. Forget carving out your own destiny: Plenty of us are just trying to hang on until we reach dry land. Perhaps because her characters aren’t exactly flashy, she can be underrated. (Liam, it must be said, is not an easy man to love. I can easily see readers getting as exasperated with him as his ex-wife, Barbara.)
Or perhaps it’s because Tyler inhabits her Baltimore world so completely that it doesn’t look like writing anymore. (It’s now de rigueur to mention that this quietly behaved version of Baltimore bears no resemblance to the grit of “The Wire.” Duly noted. One character has smoked pot. Does that count?)
But Tyler’s artistry and intelligence are both firmly in evidence in her newest novel – as are the compassion and deep well of melancholy that run through her best work. The action in “Noah’s Compass” is as muted as its hero, but its drab, meandering exterior hides something profound. Tyler has crafted a novel in which very little changes, and yet a man is completely transfigured.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.