'Redhead ByThe Side Of The Road' opens with:
'You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone. He keeps to himself. His routine is etched in stone.'
Yet this is not something most authors wonder about at all.
Not unless it turns out that Micah Mortimer is an ex-CIA black ops assassin, hiding from his violent past, or a yet-to-be-discovered serial killer, or about to inherit a mysterious object from a distant, reclusive relative that reveals him to be the only one who can hold back the demon hoards as the veil between the worlds thins.
What makes Anne Tyler unique is that she can summon up the life of this ordinary, disconnected man in a way that combines empathy, acute insight and just a hint of wry humour.
I listen to a day in Micah's life and I'm enabled to see him more clearly than he has ever seen himself and, instead of shaking my head at how clueless he is, I'm left wondering just how clearly I do see myself.
The book is accessible and engaging. Even though Micah isn't the classic broken man with a dark past, or perhaps because he isn't that classic broken man, I found I wanted to know what was going to happen to him and how he came to be how he is: a man who fixes computers for old ladies, a man who believes that if your house looks cleaner when you've cleaned it then you've left too long between cleans, a man to whom it never occurs, when his girlfriend tells him she's going to be evicted, to offer her shelter; a man who blames his failing eyesight for the fact that, when he is on his morning run without his glasses, he repeatedly mistakes a fire hydrant for a redhead at the side of the road and never once wonders why he doesn't learn.
The more I learned about Micah, the more of myself I saw in him. I think this was mainly the magic of Anne Tyler's empathy spell but I'm not entirely sure
Take this example from a beautifully drawn scene of chaotic family life in which Micah is having dinner with his four sisters and their families and is very much the odd one out. The family suddenly decides to try and find an old girlfriend of Micah's from twenty years earlier and we get this exchange:
"She still got her same last name?.
He had taken his cellphone out and was stabbing it with his index finger.
'Nobody on earth lists their phone number anymore,' Micah told him.
'Îs she on Facebook?'
'Not if she's in her right mind she's not.'
'I don't know how you can say that,' Suze told him. 'If I weren't on Facebook I wouldn't know what a single highschool friend of mine was up to.'
'You care what you're highschool friends are up to?' Micah asked.
I listened to the dialogue, knew it was supposed to be funny but found myself going, 'What's funny about that? That's exactly what I'd say.'
Then there are the small ways Anne Tyler uses the small things to share the way forty-something Micah thinks, like his conclusion at the start of this telephone conversation:
'Halfway through eating his lunch, he got a customer call.
“Tech Hermit” he said and a woman said, "Hi." all perkiness and optimism. She was probably still in her twenties.'
That's all it takes to tell you that he's sure the perkiness and the optimism will wear off with time.
What I liked most about this story was its kindness. Anne Tyler doesn't vivisect Micah and leave him splayed out on a board so we can see how he works, She takes us with him as he slowly, often painfully slowly, figures out what will really make him happy and what he has to do about it. It's not a big drama, it's just real-life, but a version of real-life where we get second chances, where we finally understand what we love and where with a little luck and a little courage we might have a shot at happiness.
I listened to the audiobook version of the novella which is perfectly delivered by MacLeod Andrews. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear him work.