Review: Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

I read Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Based on Tyler’s other books, I thought it might be shortlisted, but it wasn’t. At this point, I’m not sure why it was on the longlist. It’s not bad, but it’s not in line with Tyler’s other (better) books. Tyler excels at depicting quiet moments in the lives of “normal” people, but this book risks being too quiet. I forgot about it within a few days of reading.

Micah Mortimer is forty-something and set in his ways. If this were a made-for-TV movie, the title would suggest a feisty redhead will upend his schedule. But it’s about a fire hydrant:

On the homeward stretch this morning, he made his usual mistake of imagining for a second that a certain fire hydrant, faded to the pinkish color of an aged clay flowerpot, was a child or a very short grown-up. There was something about the rounded top of it, emerging bit by bit as he descended a slope toward an intersection. Why! he always thought to himself. What was that little redhead doing by the side of the road? Because even though he knew by now that it was only a hydrant, still, for one fleeting instant he had the same delusion all over again, every single morning. (26)

That this rises to a title-worthy moment hints at the routine sameness in Micah’s life (yes, I know it’s a metaphor). His home life is filled with cleaning because he believes “if you actually noticed the difference you made when you cleaned—the coffee table suddenly shiny, the rug suddenly lint-free—it meant you had waited to long to do it.” (7) So at least there’s some levity.

Micah runs his own “Tech Hermit” business where he travels to people’s homes and addresses simple IT concerns. At no point does he, or any other character, attain the three-dimensional richness that usually sets Tyler’s work apart. While A Spool of Blue Thread wasn’t my favorite, I could immediately visualize the opening scene—two people getting ready for bed when the phone rings—but so much of Redhead‘s dialogue rings false, or perhaps just overly simplistic.

Maybe the issue is that Micah spends too much time alone—there’s less room for Tyler to play with character interactions and dysfunctional families. While he gains life lessons from his regular clients, these interactions don’t feel legitimate, somehow the sense that these people have met before is missing. I don’t want this book to have much tech lingo, but all the turn-it-off-and-on-again tech problems make Micah’s career seem unreal. He doesn’t talk like a tech guy. And the college student doesn’t talk like a college student:

“I bought a term paper off the Internet and they found out about it,” Brink said. “My professor had some sort of software that can recognize stuff from the Internet. Who’d have thunk it, right?” (152)

Uh, everybody? And the people who don’t know aren’t students. This mysterious software has been a thing since the 2000s. There’s no reason for the character not to have known that . . . and I started wondering if maybe Anne Tyler hadn’t known it and the surprise was hers, not the characters’. And then I wondered if this was why the tech language in Micah’s scenes seemed weird too. At times, it’s like computers have been slapped into a pre-computer world. Something is off.

There are a few glimmers of Tyler’s usual magic. The way she can show both sides of a conversation without breaking its flow, like in this moment when Micah tries to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend, Cass:

[H]e wished Cass would just invite him in. But she went on standing there with the bag of clothes and her watering can. “Remind me,” she said. “Was this the evening when you suggested I should go live in my car?”
Micah felt his face turn hot.
“That was a joke,” he told her. “A stupid one, I realize. I owe you an apology. I know you were stressed about your apartment. I shouldn’t have teased you.”
Saying “Sorry” never came easy to him, as Cass most certainly knew. He held his breath and waited for some softening in her expression.
It didn’t happen, though. Instead, she said, “No, you were right, Micah. I guess I was trying to change the rules, as you put it. that was pretty dumb of me.”
“Oh, no problem!” he told her.
Then her expression did alter. He couldn’t say just how, but he sensed some shift in the very atmosphere on the landing. She said, “Thanks again for bringing my things. Bye.” (136-137)

Rating: 2.3 (out of 5.0) It’s easy to imagine that Redhead might have been a very affecting short story. In a shorter format, the abrupt ending wouldn’t have been so jarring, and less weight on the plagiarism reveal would have made it less silly.

Image credit: Goodreads

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