In The Writer on Her Work, Anne Tyler (born October 25, 1941) discusses the importance of her having lived as a child in “an experimental Quaker community in the wilderness.” For her, this early experience of isolation and her later effort “to fit into the outside world” provided the “kind of setting-apart situation” the writer requires for aesthetic distancing. Tyler’s early isolation and struggle to belong also provided both the style and material for her fiction: the ironic distance characteristic of her prose as well as the subject of the individual’s relationship to the community, particularly to other members of one’s own household and family. Most of Tyler’s short fiction and all of her novels published to date, from If Morning Ever Comes to A Patchwork Planet, concern the intricacies of family relationships and the isolation of the individual within the family. For Tyler, families clearly provided not only her major source for learning about the world as a child, but also fertile ground for studying how people endure the pain of loss and disappointment of life, adjust to living with others, and yet continue to love. All of the major conflicts and central themes of her novels evolve from this concern with the family and the individual’s relationship to the community.
In this regard, Tyler falls clearly within the southern literary tradition with its emphasis on family life and history. As Paul Binding points out in Separate Country: A Literary Journey Through the American South (1979), Tyler, like her mentor Reynolds Price, relies on interaction and “badinage between members of a family or between people who know one another well in order to illuminate personality.” Tyler does not, however, evoke or write of a regional past. She focuses on the present, narrating the past to provide a personal or familial, not a regional, history. Her characters and families are not symbolic figures. They are, instead, idiosyncratic personalities, truthfully depicted, memorable yet atypical. In all but her first three novels and, to an extent, Ladder of Years, Tyler’s setting is not the small towns and rural landscapes so often considered synonymous with southern life. Rather, her terrain is the border city of Baltimore and the decay and transience of modern urban life. Price, in fact, has said that she is the closest thing the South has to an urban novelist, indicating Tyler’s somewhat unusual position among late twentieth century American writers: a southerner with a traditional interest in family, community, and the past; a modern woman fascinated with change and drawn to urban life; a writer with faith in humankind’s ability to love and endure yet keenly aware of the difficulties of modern life, particularly the failure of communication within the family.
In her concern for familial relationships, Tyler’s novels raise the existential issues of freedom and commitment. Significantly, hers is a compassionate art without explicit moral judgment—an absence of judgment for which some critics have faulted her. The effect of this gentle portrayal of serious themes is ironic: The disturbing failure of Tyler’s characters to understand fully and to be understood by those they love is counterbalanced by a witty, carefully detailed style. Violence is usually absent from her work as well, and so are the grotesques found in the fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. The most disfigured character in Tyler’s work— Evie Decker, the fat teenager in A Slipping-Down Life who carves a local rock singer’s name in her forehead—is compassionately portrayed. Like Eudora Welty, Tyler populates her novels with ordinary people, all of whom, she comments in The Writer on Her Work, are mildly eccentric in some way and “have something unusual” at their centers, something “funny and strange” and “touching in unexpected ways.” From Ben Joe Hawkes in If Morning Ever Comes, who reads upside down to relieve boredom, to the elusive and difficult black sheep of her fictional families—Caleb and Duncan Peck, Morgan Gower, Cody Tull, and Barnaby Gaitlin—Tyler warmly and humorously portrays a wide spectrum of fascinating yet ordinary human beings.
Additionally, with Reynolds Price as her teacher and Eudora Welty as a model, Tyler saw early in her career the rich source of literary materials offered by commonplace experience. Paul Binding also cites the influence of Tyler’s study of the Russian masters, particularly Ivan Turgenev and Anton Chekhov, as a basis for her tolerant and warm portrayal of multiple generations of entangled and eccentric families. Finally, perhaps most prominent is Tyler’s own witness to her parents’ idealism, their quest for a perfect community throughout her youth, and later their apparently easy adjustment to an ordinary existence in a middle-sized southern city. Like her own father, whom she describes in The Writer on Her Work, the heroes of Tyler’s novels are those who are “infinitely adapting” and always “looking around . . . with a smile to say, ‘Oh! So this is where I am!’” They are complex people, enriched and deepened by experience— Elizabeth Abbott in The Clock Winder, Justine Peck in Searching for Caleb, Charlotte Emory in Earthly Possessions, Jenny Tull in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Maggie Moran in Breathing Lessons, and Delia Grinstead in Ladder of Years best represent the type—able to enjoy life because they view themselves and others with tolerance and wit.
In an interview with Clifford Ridley for the National Observer, Tyler commented that she did not particularly like either of her first two books because “they seem so bland.” Ben Joe Hawkes, the hero of If Morning Ever Comes, is “a likable guy; that’s all you can say about him.” Although it is true that Ben Joe lacks the zaniness and interest that some of Tyler’s later characters exhibit, his struggle to deal with his family, to recognize both his own independence and theirs, and to come to terms with the past and the psychological distance that isolates people even within an intimate group provides a basis for understanding Tyler’s later work and her place within the southern literary tradition. If Morning Ever Comes had its origins in two short stories: “I Never Saw Morning,” which appeared in the April, 1961, Archive and was later collected in Under Twenty-five: Duke Narrative and Verse, 1945-1962 (1963), edited by William Blackburn; and “Nobody Answers the Door,” which appeared in the fall, 1964, issue of the Antioch Review. Both involve incidents suggested by the novel but occurring prior to the time of its opening. With the novel, they indicate Tyler’s strong sense of the continuity of her characters’ lives.
If Morning Ever Comes
As in later novels, the plot and subject of If Morning Ever Comes, Ben Joe’s five-day journey home to Sandhill, North Carolina, from Columbia University, where he is a law student, evolve from family conflict. The family of women Ben Joe has left behind—six strikingly independent sisters, a proud mother, and a spry, seventy-eight-year-old grandmother, the first of Tyler’s zanies—fail to tell him what is happening at home. Jenny, the family letter-writer, is all business. No one mentions the illegitimate son whom Ben Joe’s father left behind with a mistress when he died, nor the support payments Ben Joe personally delivered for years before he left for New York. The family treats lightly even the fact that Ben Joe’s oldest sister, Joanne, has taken her child, left her husband, and returned home after seven years. Their behavior and their failure to understand Ben Joe’s concern and worry point clearly to the theme of the individual’s isolation within the family, here a male in an entire family of women.
On the surface, If Morning Ever Comes is a simply structured novel covering less than a week in the life of its hero. As one critic has observed, however, going home is “only partly a spatial relocation.” Ben Joe, like other southern literary heroes, “from Quentin Compson to Jack Burden,” must return home “to embrace the spiritual crisis” created by an unsettled past and attempt to forge a future shaped by that very past. In this regard, If Morning Ever Comes is clearly a southern novel. The fact that it draws on a sharp contrast between the peaceful North Carolina setting and the briskness of New York, as well as the hero’s discomfort and sense of dislocation in the North, is also suggestive of Tyler’s southern literary roots.
The Tin Can Tree
Although not widely reviewed nor acclaimed, The Tin Can Tree is a moving novel that expands and deepens Tyler’s treatment of family relationships and the individual’s struggle to remain committed in the face of significant loss and change. Just as Ben Joe Hawkes in If Morning Ever Comes remained committed to his family despite their pride and reticence, and to his father’s memory despite the elder Hawkes’s unfaithfulness, so also the characters in The Tin Can Tree, the members of three separate families sharing one house—the Pikes, the Greens, and the Potters— must deal with the commonly experienced grief at the death of the Pikes’ six-year-old daughter, Janie Rose, adjust, and resume the task of living. Tyler’s achievement here is that she captures eight different characters’ varying responses to grief while avoiding the sentimental and maudlin. She opens the novel with the close of the funeral service, thus deliberately focusing on life, rather than death, and the resumption of the tasks of everyday living.
In addition to this theme of grief, The Tin Can Tree explores the background and interactions of James and Ansel Green and Joan Pike, Janie Rose’s cousin. The study of James’s commitment to his ailing brother Ansel, the two brothers’ alienation from their family, and Joan’s distance from her own elderly parents as well as her unresolved romantic involvement with James, give the novel a depth lacking in If Morning Ever Comes, with its heavy focus on one central character. As one reviewer noted, The Tin Can Tree illustrates Tyler’s talent for bringing “into focus a remarkable range of human traits and emotions.” Lou Pike’s depressive withdrawal and immobility after her daughter’s death, her husband’s worried yet practical concern, their son Simon’s sense of rejection and neglect, Joan’s uncertainty and anger at James and his brother Ansel—all acquire full portraiture. A love of detail permeates the book, from the Potter sisters’ eccentric way of wearing hats and gloves even when visiting only at the other end of the porch to the details of Janie Rose’s behavior, her “tin can tree” made in honor of God during a religious period and her wearing layer upon layer of underwear on “her bad days.” Such details make the characters real and Janie Rose’s death more immediate and painful.
The Tin Can Tree is also the first Tyler novel to draw explicitly on the author’s tobacco-field experience. Joan Pike, a school secretary, spends part of her summers handling tobacco in the warehouses, as Tyler herself did as a teenager. Besides providing elements of plot and characterization, the Tobacco Road landscape mirrors the sterility of the characters’ lives following Janie Rose’s death and provides a voice for the novel’s theme. “Bravest thing about people, Miss Joan,” one of the tobacco tiers says, “is how they go on loving mortal beings after finding out there’s such a thing as dying.” Unlike Erskine Caldwell, whose stereotypical white trash characters are often farcical grotesques, Tyler deepens the Tobacco Road landscape by a compassionate, detailed account of the grief of several families at the death of a child. Hers is a fiction of psychological insight, not a document for social change. The Tin Can Tree, as one critic observed, is “a novel rich in incident that details the closing of a family wound and the resumption of life among people stunned by the proof of mortality.”
A Slipping-Down Life
In her third novel, A Slipping-Down Life, Tyler returned to the existential themes of the individual’s isolation, the struggle for identity, and the lack of understanding and meaningful communication among people living closely together. Set in the fictional towns of Pulqua and Farinia, North Carolina—suspiciously similar to the actual town of Fuquay-Varina near Raleigh—it was the last of the Tyler’s books set entirely in North Carolina but also the first to portray the barrenness of familial relationships in a clearly modern setting. Although most of If Morning Ever Comes and all of The Tin Can Tree are set in peaceful, remote areas where family life, though troubled, seems unaffected by distinctly modern problems, A Slipping- Down Life draws heavily on the impact of modern American culture and media on family life. Also, where Tyler’s first two novels covered only a few days in the lives of the principal characters, A Slipping-Down Life chronicles one full year in the life of its heroine—a fat, dowdy, teenage girl named Evie Decker—indicating a development in Tyler’s ability to handle character over an extended period of time.
Originating in a “newspaper story about a fifteen-year-old girl in Texas who’d slashed ‘Elvis’ in her forehead,” the novel traces Evie’s barren interaction with her father, her only living relative, as well as the development and dissolution of a relationship with a local rock singer named Bertram “Drumstrings” Casey, the first of Tyler’s unadmirable yet likable antiheroes—exploitative and selfish yet touchingly shy and dependent on his parents and Evie. Evie’s entanglement with Drum, leading eventually to their marriage, is initiated by her carving the name “Casey” in her forehead with a pair of nail scissors, and ends with the couple’s separation, the death of Evie’s family, and her discovery of Casey in bed with another woman. Throughout, Evie thinks of herself as though she were acting on a stage set, taking her cues from the soap operas she watches daily with Clotelia, the Deckers’ sullen maid and Evie’s sometime chiding surrogate mother. Like Joan Pike in The Tin Can Tree and later Tyler heroines—Justine Peck in Searching for Caleb and Charlotte Emory in Earthly Possessions—Evie is an only child faced with growing up alone in a dark, stifling household and creating an identity without the companionship and aid of siblings or understanding parents.
Besides its characterizations, A Slipping-Down Life is also noteworthy for capturing at least part of the American experience during the 1960’s: the lonely world of teenagers, the generation gap, the high school student’s unending quest for popularity and romance, as well as a small town’s tawdry local rock scene, featuring the chilled air in a roadside house, painfully loud music, necking couples, and the smell of stale beer. As one reviewer observed, A Slipping-Down Life captures “a way of life, a way that is tacked upon teenage bulletin boards, sewn to dresses ‘decorated with poodles on loops of real chain,’ enclosed in high-school notebooks containing Silver Screen magazine.”
The Clock Winder
Tyler’s first three novels all involve some type of journey home during which a central character confronts both the distance between himself and his family and the difficulties of unresolved past conflicts. Ben Joe’s journey from New York to Sandhill in If Morning Ever Comes fits this pattern, as do James Green’s trip to Caraway, North Carolina, in The Tin Can Tree and, in A Slipping-Down Life, Evie Decker’s return to her father’s house following his death. A similar trip occurs in The Clock Winder. A novel characterized by Sarah Blackburn as having all the “virtues” of southern writing—“an easy, almost confidential directness, fine skill at quick characterization, a sure eye for atmosphere, and a special nostalgic humor”—The Clock Winder was at the time of its publication Tyler’s most ambitious work, tracing the intricate relationships of a large cast of characters over an entire decade. It was also her first novel set in Baltimore.
The diverse, eccentric, eight-member Emerson family of Baltimore and their one adopted member, Elizabeth Abbott, clearly form one of those huge, “loving-bickering” southern families Tyler told Clifford Ridley she hoped to create in writing If Morning Ever Comes. Mrs. Emerson—a skinny, fragile widow—is unrelenting in nagging her children about their neglected duties to her. She is, consequently, estranged from all but one: Timothy, a pressured medical student who, with his twin, Andrew, is one of the most neurotic and disturbed characters in Tyler’s novels. Into this entangled, crisis-prone family, Elizabeth Abbott brings the very skills she is unable to practice with her own family in Ellington, North Carolina. Tolerant, practical, dextrous, and witty—the first of Tyler’s “infinitely adapting” heroines based on her own father—Elizabeth is a godsend for the nervous Mrs. Emerson. In Ellington, she is abumbler, a rebellious college dropout, and a painful reminder of failure to her minister father. Her life at home is bleak, ordinary, and restricted. Commitment to the Emersons, despite their family feuds, offers interest and freedom from the Abbott family’s dicta, an opportunity to forma new identity and life free of reminders of past mistakes.
Besides expanding character, setting, and time frame, The Clock Winder is unusual among Tyler’s first four works for its use of violence and its experimentation with point of view. Timothy Emerson commits suicide by shooting himself in Elizabeth’s presence, sending her home to her family for several years. Later, after her return to Baltimore, his twin shoots her, though he causes only a flesh wound. Also, where earlier Tyler novels used omniscient point of view focusing largely on one major character—the exception is The Tin Can Tree, in which Joan Pike and James Green serve alternately as centers of consciousness—The Clock Winder shifts perspective among many characters, some of them minor. In one chapter, the reader witnesses the succession of disconnected thoughts, the confusion of physical sensations, and the temporal disorientation accompanying Mrs. Emerson’s stroke. Another presents the views of the youngest Emerson, Peter, who appears only in the final chapter of the novel. These shifts in point of view result in an intimate portrait not only of the novel’s central character, Elizabeth, but also of the Emersons—a varied, contrasting family of idiosyncratic individuals.
With Celestial Navigation, Tyler moved her novels to a totally urban landscape. Eight months after the novel’s publication, she told a Duke University audience that she “could no longer write a southern novel” since she had lived away from the South too long to capture realistically the “voices” and behavior of the people who live there. Set almost exclusively in a seedy Baltimore boardinghouse “smack in the middle” of a deteriorating inner-city neighborhood, Celestial Navigation is Tyler’s portrait of the artist. It covers thirteen years in the central character’s life, expanding the study of character development found in earlier novels and illustrating her increasing skill in handling point of view. The various boarders narrate firsthand their experiences and relationships to other residents. Additionally, since it focuses largely on boarders rather than kin, somewhat like The Tin Can Tree with its three families unrelated by blood, and because it includes the common-law marriage of its hero, Celestial Navigation redefines the meaning of family ties as characterized in Tyler’s novels. It also intensifies the isolation of the protagonist. Jeremy Pauling, the artist-hero of the novel and the owner of the rooming house, is so reclusive that for years he has not left the city block where he lives. His principal ties are not with his two sisters in Richmond, neither very understanding of his peculiar artistic temperament, but with the boarders with whom he lives.
The caring family of boarders the novel studies, however, are essentially isolated strangers living in private rooms. They are mostly older people with severed family connections or no remaining kin. Ironically, they exhibit more tolerance and unquestioning respect for the peculiarities and privacy of one another than do many blood-related members. Mrs. Vinton, an aged spinster who works in a bookstore, stays on to care for Jeremy years after the others move or die, yet she never interrupts his trancelike states or work. With the other boarders—the elegant widow Mrs. Jarrett, the nubile Mary Tell, the young Olivia, and the fractious old Mrs. Somerset shuffling about in slippers—Mrs. Vinton is a testament to Tyler’s talent for realistically capturing a gallery of idiosyncratic yet identifiably ordinary people.
The real achievement of Celestial Navigation, though, is Jeremy Pauling. He is one of Tyler’s minor grotesques. A pale, pudgy sculptor, he rarely speaks and withdraws for days at a time to his secluded bedroom-studio. The novel works as Jeremy’s story, however, partly because Tyler gives him a full range of emotions—including sexual attraction to several female boarders and a love for the children he has by his common- law marriage. She also views him with both compassion and humor and lets the reader see him from several points of view. Tyler shifts to third-person point of view to narrate Jeremy’s chapters, since Jeremy himself is incapable of communicating his impressions in the coherent manner of the other characters. Tyler has said that the character of Jeremy is based in part on a shy, easily flustered little man she helped one day in the library where she worked, but she added several of her own traits to the character: a dread of telephones and doorbells (something retained from her isolated childhood) and, most important, her own artistic vision, an eye for the “smallest and most unnoticed scenes on earth,” very much like those details Tyler captures in Celestial Navigation.
Searching for Caleb
Searching for Caleb marked a turning point in Tyler’s career. It was her first novel to receive national recognition, at a time when Tyler’s own reviews began to appear in national publications. As Walter Sullivan commented in 1977 when reviewing Searching for Caleb for the Sewanee Review, Tyler “retained” in her work “a kind of innocence . . . a sense of wonder at all the crazy things in the world and an abiding affection for her own flaky characters.” Searching for Caleb was also evidence that Tyler had retained her southern literary roots and her delight in huge families and the range of human characters those families produce. Something of a combined family history and detective story, the novel is one of Tyler’s most ambitious works, tracing five generations of one large, dichotomous, and extremely long-lived clan, the Pecks of Baltimore, from the 1880’s through 1973. As in The Clock Winder and Celestial Navigation, Tyler shows her strong fascination with urban life, a result perhaps of her own early life in remote areas. She also returns to Roland Park, one of Baltimore’s oldest residential neighborhoods and the main setting of The Clock Winder.
As the title suggests, Searching for Caleb involves a quest for the vanished Caleb, the great uncle of the novel’s protagonists, Duncan and Justine Peck, and the half brother of their grandfather, Daniel Peck. Representing one side of the family, Caleb, Justine, and Duncan are outcasts of a sort: spirited, talented, imaginative, and free individuals unable or unwilling to live as family rules dictate. Caleb becomes a musician, Justine a fortune-teller. Duncan, her husband and first cousin, leads an unsettled life as a mechanic and jack-of-all-trades, foreshadowing Morgan Gower, the hero of Morgan’s Passing. Like Morgan and, later, Barnaby Gaitlin of A Patchwork Planet, Duncan dismays his family.
The other side of the family, the Pecks of Roland Park, headed by Daniel, are uniformly humorless and restricted. The women, though educated, are unthreatening; the men, all attorneys educated at Johns Hopkins, drive black Fords and dress in Brooks Brothers suits. They are, above all, clannish, living side by side in similar Roland Park houses. For them, family tradition and training—in effect, the past— are inescapable. Even Daniel’s late-life quest for his half brother evolves from his ties to family and an unsettled conflict. It represents a delayed response to the question frequently asked in his childhood: “Daniel, have you seen Caleb?”
Searching for Caleb, like Tyler’s earlier novels, also illustrates the author’s belief in the need for human adaptability, tolerance, and love. Justine epitomizes the philosophy. She weathers a dark and uncertain childhood with a depressive mother, frequent moves with her restless husband, the death of both parents and her grandfather, and the loss of her one daughter in marriage to a milquetoast minister. Yet, she remains spirited and continues to love her family. She insists on visiting Roland Park, a longing Duncan cannot understand, and she is committed to finding Caleb, not only out of a love of travel and adventure but also to share the experiences with her grandfather and to find her own roots. With its focus on community and family and its delineation of the unsettled conflicts of the past affecting the present, Searching for Caleb indicates Tyler’s own roots in the family of southern literature.
Earthly Possessions • When it appeared in 1977, Earthly Possessions was Tyler’s most unfavorably received novel. Among disapproving reviewers, Roger Sale in The New York Times Review of Books saw the book as “a cartoon” of sorts, with the life of Charlotte Emory, the protagonist, “reduced . . . by her own hand” until all “possible anguish is . . . lost.” The reason for this response is no doubt the sardonic nature of Charlotte herself, an entrapped housewife who sets out to leave her husband but gets kidnapped instead in a bungled bank robbery. Such reversals characterize Charlotte’s life and have led her to “loosen” her hold so that she sees everything from an ironic distance. Charlotte, moreover, is the novel’s only narrator, and she tells her life story in chapters alternating perfectly with those narrating her experiences with Jake Simms, her kidnapper, on their trip south from Clarion, Maryland, Charlotte’s hometown. Along the way, Tyler captures the fragmentation and transience of modern life, reflected in a string of drive-in restaurants, banks, and films. The triumph of the novel is not, as in earlier Tyler works, characterization, but the panorama of contemporary American life that the book captures during this journey of hostage and kidnapper.
With its contrapuntal chapters, Earthly Possessions is Tyler’s most highly structured novel, the first to be told entirely in the first person by one narrator. The result is an artificial temporal arrangement and a restricted focus, one lifetime as compared with those of eight or nine Emersons, five generations of Pecks. Also, the reader is always in the presence of two somewhat unsavory characters: a nail-biting, minor-league criminal and a stoical, cynical woman. All might have come from the pen of Flannery O’Connor but for the touchingly human flaws Tyler draws. Neither Jake nor Charlotte, despite their failings, is morally culpable. What they share is a common, impractical desire for freedom from the entanglements of life: for Charlotte, marriage complete with a house full of relatives and in-laws, rooms of furniture (earthly possessions), even sinners from the mourner’s bench at her husband’s church; for Jake jail for a petty crime and a pregnant girlfriend. Heading south to rescue Jake’s Kewpie-doll girlfriend from a home for unwed mothers, Charlotte realizes that Jake is, like herself, “criss-crossed by strings of love and need and worry.” Even Charlotte and Jake’s relationship grows into a type of commitment. Eventually the two share the driving as well as their troubles. Any “relationship,” Tyler told Marguerite Michaels in an interview for The New York Times Book Review, even one “as bizarre as” that of “a bank robber and hostage could become . . . bickering [and] familiar. . . . Anything done gradually enough becomes ordinary.”
Earthly Possessions, despite its problems, shares with The Tin Can Tree and Celestial Navigation a redefinition of family ties. With Tyler’s other novels, it also illuminates the problems and conflicts of the individual within a close relationship, whether familial or not, and focuses on the eccentric nature of ordinary lives, the ordinariness of the bizarre.
In her eighth novel, Tyler returned to the heart of Baltimore for her setting and to a central character, Morgan Gower, who is strikingly eccentric. Reviewers compared him with Saul Bellow’s Henderson and Joseph Heller’s Major Major. He also resembles Duncan Peck as well as other Tyler protagonists. Like those heroes, Morgan is in conflict with his family: seven daughters who find him embarrassing, a slovenly though good-natured wife, a senile mother, and a depressed, inert sister. Like Ben Joe Hawkes, Morgan feels trapped and misunderstood in a house cluttered with “the particles of related people’s unrelated worlds” and full of women with whom he is unable to communicate satisfactorily. Although his family insists on going about life unconsciously, Morgan, spirited and highly inventive, faces a midlife crisis that calls for a change. He must also come to terms with his past, the consequences of marrying Bonny for her money as well as his father’s inexplicable suicide when Morgan was a teenager. Like Duncan Peck, Morgan is a kind of mechanical genius who takes up various projects, then drops them—“a tinkering, puttering, hardware sort of man.” Like the renegade Pecks, he eventually abandons his Baltimore family to take up a new life and identity with a traveling amusement company.
Despite these resemblances to other Tyler heroes, Morgan is a unique creation, the product of Tyler’s maturing vision of life. Her understanding of his sexual attraction to a young puppeteer and her portrayal of his frustration with his wife suggest a depth of insight into the problems of marriage, a depth lacking in the early If Morning Ever Comes. Morgan is also a complex character, an impostor who tries on identities complete with matching costumes. At times he is “Father Morgan, the street priest of Baltimore”; at other times, he is an immigrant with family still abroad, a doctor who delivers a baby in the backseat of a car—any role in which people will accept him. Though most of this role-playing is harmless, Morgan is an antihero lacking a firm identity, a modern eccentric who revels in the anonymity and emptiness of decaying city neighborhoods and a man who assumes a false identity to take up life with another man’s wife without benefit of divorce. Not surprisingly, reviewers found it difficult to like Morgan, but few found him unbelievable.
Tyler’s increasing skill in capturing and making believable such a character testifies to her maturation as a writer. As John Leonard commented in The New York Times when reviewing the novel, readers “are obliged to care” about Tyler’s “odd people” “because their oddities are what we see at an angle in the mirror in the middle of a bad night.” Drawing from selected everyday scenes covering twelve years in Morgan’s life, Tyler roots her novel firmly in the here and now. Morgan becomes believable because he is not always posing. He reads the morning paper over coffee, affectionately slaps his wife on her rear end, smokes too much, attends a daughter’s wedding, despairs over a quarrel-filled family vacation, works in a hardware store, and comes down with a terrible cold. Tyler’s is a realistic art illuminating family conflict and solidly based in the ordinary details of life.
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
Of all Tyler’s novels, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant most inspires comparison with the work of Flannery O’Connor. The title is reminiscent of O’Connor’s wit and irony, and the mood of the novel, as one reviewer noted, is that of “O’Connor’s Gothic South” with its “sullen, psychic menace.” At her best, as in Celestial Navigation, Tyler captures the pain, anxiety, and isolation beneath the surface of ordinary lives. At times, however, particularly in Earthly Possessions but also Morgan’s Passing, she treats this pain lightly, thus denying a sense of genuine struggle. In Earthly Possessions, Charlotte is flippant and ironic; in Morgan’s Passing, Morgan is a zany, the mood quick and light. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, representing what John Updike called a “darkening” of Tyler’s art, presents the other side of the coin from Morgan’s Passing, not only in mood but also in story line. Its focus is not the husband who abandons his family to find a new life, but the family he left behind. It is a stunning psychological portrait of the Tulls, Pearl and her three children, and the anger, guilt, hurt, and anxiety they feel growing up in an uncertain world without a father. All carry their pain through life, illustrating more profoundly than any of Tyler’s earlier books the past’s haunting influence on the present.
Covering thirty-five years, three generations of Tulls, the novel opens with Pearl on her deathbed. This first chapter, reminiscent of Katherine Anne Porter’s short story “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” depicts Pearl as a stoical, frightened woman who has weathered a youth filled with dread of being an old maid, a quick marriage, and a lonely struggle to rear three “flawed” children: Cody, the oldest boy, a troublemaker from childhood, “prone to unreasonable rages”; Jenny, the only girl, “flippant” and “opaque”; Ezra, his mother’s favorite, a gentle man who has not “lived up to his potential” but instead has become the ambitionless owner of the Homesick Restaurant. Not one of Pearl’s children has turned out as she wished. Consequently, she, like other Tyler characters, feels “closed off” from her family, the very children to whom she has devoted her life. Later chapters reveal why, focusing on each of the children in turn and tracing the evolution of their lives as well as their fear of their mother’s rages. All, like their mother, end up in some way “destroyed by love.”
Tyler’s compassionate portrayal of her characters and her characteristic humor do mitigate the darkness of this novel. Although Pearl, her forehead permanently creased from worry, verbally and physically abuses her children, Tyler lets the reader understand the reasons for Pearl’s behavior and shows a far mellower Pearl in old age. Jenny, after struggling through medical school, two marriages, and a nervous breakdown, is nursed back to health by her mother. Cody spares no expense in caring for his family, even though he is unable to forgive Pearl for mistreating him as a child. The teenager Cody plays cruel but funny tricks on his brother, Ezra—partly out of resentment of Ezra’s being the favorite but also from Cody’s own pain and sense of rejection. Taking slats from Ezra’s bed, Cody strews the floor with pornographic magazines so Pearl will think Ezra the kind of disappointment she finds Cody to be. Later, after stealing Ezra’s sweetheart, he recognizes not only his guilt but also his love for his brother. These tales fill out the dark psychological portrait Tyler draws, making Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, like many of Tyler’s earlier books, a confirmation of life’s difficulty as well as of the value of love.
The Accidental Tourist
A mood of dark comedy pervades The Accidental Tourist. It is the only Tyler work in which a murder occurs, and a sense of the inexplicable, tragic nature of reality moves the plot and forms a backdrop for the novel. The book opens with Macon and Sarah Leary returning from a truncated beach vacation and the sudden announcement by Sarah that she wants a divorce. Macon, the central character, is a forty-four-year-old writer of guidebooks for travellers who find themselves in foreign places but prefer the familiarity of home. The logo for the series, titled Accidental Tourist, is a winged armchair, a motif suggesting Macon’s attitude toward the disruptions of travel. In the opening pages of The Accidental Tourist, the reader learns of the death of Macon and Sarah’s twelve-year-old son, Ethan, who was killed in a robbery at a burger stand. Besides their grief at the death of their son, Macon and Sarah must confront the permanent jarring of their world by the random nature of the crime: The robber shot Ethan as an afterthought; Ethan and his friend had impulsively stolen away from a summer camp.With Sarah’s leaving, Macon’s life crumbles, yet he strives desperately to maintain control, to reduce life to its simplest terms. He sleeps in one sheet sewn together like a body bag and showers in his shirt to save on laundry. In a spirit of fun, Tyler gives Macon an alter ego, aWelsh corgi, Edward, who becomes increasingly surly as Macon’s life disintegrates. Through Edward, Tyler introduces the unpredictable Muriel Pritchett, a dog trainer set on finding a father for her sickly son, Alexander.
Told from a limited third-person point of view, The Accidental Tourist displays Tyler’s art at its best: her eye for idiosyncratic behavior and the accidental quality of reality, her focus on family as the center of life’s triumphs and tragedies. The family here is not only Macon and Sarah but also Macon’s siblings: his sister Rose, whose romance with Julian Edge, Macon’s publisher, forms a dual plot to Macon’s romance with Muriel, and his two brothers, Charles and Porter. For part of the novel, Tyler centers on the Leary siblings, all marred by their mother’s carefree abandonment of them. Both Charles and Porter are divorced, and Rose now maintains her grandparents’ home for her brothers. What is striking about the house is its orderliness— every item in the kitchen is shelved in alphabetical order—and its changelessness. When Macon breaks a leg in a freak accident, he returns to his siblings and resumes life just as if he had never been married, had a child, and lived away for years. The characteristics of families, Tyler suggests, are permanently etched. It is the occurrences of life that constantly shift.
In The Accidental Tourist, Tyler depicted the dissolution of a twenty-year marriage following the violent death of the Learys’ son. In Breathing Lessons, she presents the opposite: the duration of Ira and Maggie Moran’s marriage for twenty-eight years. Told primarily through flashbacks as the couple journeys to the funeral of a friend, the novel covers nearly thirty years in one September day and contrasts the Morans’ courtship and marriage with the relationship of their son, Jesse, and his former wife, Fiona. From its beginning, Breathing Lessons concerns not only Ira and Maggie’s bickering, love, and tolerance for each other but also Maggie’s struggle to reconcile Jesse and Fiona.
Set in Pennsylvania and Baltimore, the novel has three principal divisions, each told from a restricted third-person point of view. The first and third sections focus on Maggie’s consciousness, while the middle section, which constitutes something of an interlude, centers on Ira’s thoughts. The first section wittily depicts the music and mores of the 1950’s. The second part depicts a side trip in which Ira and Maggie temporarily become involved with an elderly black man who has separated from his wife of more than fifty years. This section also provides Ira’s family history and his response to his wife and children. Tyler reveals here a masterful handling of exposition through internal thought sequences and flashbacks. The novel’s third section, which introduces the characters of Fiona and Leroy, her daughter, returns to Maggie’s thoughts and her memories of Jesse and Fiona’s relationship. A return to Baltimore with Fiona and Leroy completes the section, suggesting the cyclical nature of experience, a central theme in the novel.
In Breathing Lessons, Tyler continues to balance a lighthearted view of human nature with a depth of insight into the darker side of marriage. Maggie and Ira’s marriage, while offering a sound balance of two contrasting personality types who can bicker and then reconcile, has its dark side also: a “helpless, angry, confined feeling” that Maggie experiences “from time to time.” Ira, too, realizes that marriage involves “the same old arguments, . . . the same old resentments dragged up year after year.” The joyful side of Tyler’s fiction is her fondness for zany characters, her keen eye for the bizarre in human behavior, which she observes with amused detachment, and her finely tuned ear for human speech. Breathing Lessons offers many examples, beginning with the zesty, lowerclass names of her characters: Serena, Fiona, Duluth. Maggie herself belongs to a long line of lively, unpredictable Tyler heroines—most expert caretakers—beginning with Granny Hawkes in If Morning Ever Comes, Tyler’s first novel. In fact, in both her acute observations of others and her repeated attempts “to alter people’s lives,” Maggie resembles her creator, the fiction writer who manipulates the lives of her characters to fill her plot.
The “darkening” of Tyler’s work continues in Saint Maybe despite its lovably offbeat characters and unambiguously happy ending. Possible marital infidelity, child neglect, and suicide set the novel moving. The Bedloes are an “ideal, apple- pie” family, determined to be happy and “normal.” Trouble invades their Eden in the form of Lucy, a sexy single mother who marries the elder son, Danny, bringing along two young children and, most likely, another she is carrying when she meets her new groom. She also brings an insatiable restlessness. The Bedloes welcome the addition to the fold, proclaiming their son fortunate to have found “a ready-made family.” It is the seventeen-year-old protagonist Ian, Danny’s younger brother, who questions Lucy’s virtue, a query with lethal consequences: Danny’s suicide when he sees himself a cuckold and Lucy’s when she forfeits a bleak future with an overdose of pills.
Guilt over the tragedy he believes he has caused drives Ian to join the Church of the Second Chance, a congregation of born-again Christians who pursue active atonement for their failings. Obsessively seeking forgiveness, Ian drops out of college at the age of nineteen to raise his brother’s orphaned stepchildren. Christlike, he forswears sexual activity and pursues carpentry. He leads a martyred though by no means solitary existence over the next twenty-three years. As with many Tyler heroes, Ian lacks self-awareness: He cannot recognize his own goodness, does not understand that he has paid any debt in full. However, when at forty-two he marries Rita diCarlo, a character reminiscent of Muriel Pritchett, Macon Leary’s freewheeling lifeline in The Accidental Tourist, Ian is delightfully surprised to realize that he has not spent his years paying a penance but leading a rich—if unorthodox—life.
Ladder of Years
Ladder of Years tells the story of forty-year-old Cordelia Grinstead’s circular flight from her upper-middle-class life in Baltimore. Until she simply walks away from her husband and teenage children during their vacation, Delia has never left home. Having passively married her father’s assistant, who chose her as a helpmate in assuming the family medical practice, Delia lives her married life in her girlhood home, where she suffocates under the weight of domesticity. Her presence is defined by the demands of the family she nurtures, yet her children’s increasing selfsufficiency threatens her with obsolescence. Fleeing home, Delia embarks on a journey toward self-discovery, a quest reminiscent of Charlotte Emory’s in Earthly Possessions. She initially revels in her spare new existence in a small Maryland town, but as with other of Tyler’s would-be renegades from the hearth, the caregiver’s habits of heart and mind reassert themselves. Realizing that she has re-created the very role she believed she had shed, Delia embraces her identity as a nurturer and returns home, aware finally of her family’s genuine yet unvoiced appreciation.
A Patchwork Planet
A Patchwork Planet revisits Saint Maybe’s theme of debt and repayment. Black sheep Barnaby Gaitlin is a former juvenile delinquent who, to the shame of his affluent parents, was arrested in his youth for breaking into the homes of their wealthy Guilford neighbors. To keep her son out of jail, Margot Gaitlin (born Margo Kazmerow, “just a Polish girl from Canton”) swallowed her pride to beg and buy her neighbors’ silence. Barnaby’s freedom cost $8,700, a sum his embittered mother continually holds over him. Though Barnaby eventually repays this debt, he learns that self-respect cannot be purchased.
A handyman who performs odd jobs for an assortment of crotchety yet colorful senior citizens, Barnaby stumbles across a client’s “Twinform” while tidying her attic. The mannequin—shaped and painted to resemble the owner—was invented by his great-grandfather as an aid to foolproof dressing: By first modeling an outfit on a “double,” one could gauge and adjust the effect of the intended apparel. Barnaby is intrigued by this premise of the trial run, and he imputes his many mistakes to his failure to hold metaphoric dress rehearsals for his life. He is convinced that he lacks necessary information for successful living, a need that prompted the boyhood burglaries during which he would examine his victims’ photographs and diaries for clues to how they managed their lives. He remains rudderless at the age of thirty, wavering between intentionally disappointing his parents through exaggerated irresponsibility and straining to please them, nearly marrying the unsuitably staid Sophia Maynard because she lends him the respectability he lacks.
Barnaby sinks to an emotional low when he is wrongly accused of theft, a crime Sophia believes him guilty of and a charge that he feels he vicariously deserves. However, in the homemade blanket alluded to in the novel’s title, Barnaby finds the expansive perspective from which to accept the love and faith that his clients rightly place in him. On an elderly woman’s quilt he sees that Earth is “makeshift and haphazard, clumsily cobbled together, overlapping and crowded and likely to fall into pieces at any moment.” He is moved to accept and forgive his own failings as a universal condition of his humanity. The novel ends with his resolute goodbye to the girlfriend who doubted his goodness: “Sophia, you never did realize. I am a man you can trust.”
Long fiction • If Morning Ever Comes, 1964; The Tin Can Tree, 1965; A Slipping-Down Life, 1970; The Clock Winder, 1972; Celestial Navigation, 1974; Searching for Caleb, 1976; Earthly Possessions, 1977; Morgan’s Passing, 1980; Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, 1982; The Accidental Tourist, 1985; Breathing Lessons, 1988; Saint Maybe, 1991; Ladder of Years, 1995; A Patchwork Planet, 1998; Back When We Were Grownups, 2001; The Amateur Marriage, 2004; Digging to America, 2006.
Short fiction: “The Common Courtesies,” 1968; “Who Would Want a Little Boy?,” 1968; “With All Flags Flying,” 1971; “The Bride in the Boatyard,” 1972; “Spending,” 1973; “The Base-Metal Egg,” 1973; “Half-Truths and Semi-Miracles,” 1974; “A Knack for Languages,” 1975; “Some Sign That I Ever Made You Happy,” 1975; “The Geologist’s Maid,” 1975; “Your Place Is Empty,” 1976; “Average Waves in Unprotected Waters,” 1977; “Foot-Footing On,” 1977; “Holding Things Together,” 1977; “Uncle Ahmad,” 1977; “Under the Bosom Tree,” 1977; “Linguistics,” 1978; “Laps,” 1981; “The Country Cook,” 1982; “TeenageWasteland,” 1983; “Rerun,” 1988; “A Woman Like a Fieldstone House,” 1989; “People Who Don’t Know the Answers,” 1991.
Children’s literature: Tumble Tower, 1993 (illustrations by Mitra Modarressi).
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.