Redhead by the Side of the Road is an absorbing read. Anne Tyler has a magical ability to explore unremarkable and ordinary lives in her favoured setting of Baltimore, while getting deep into human nature and how extraordinary that is.
The title is a tease, but firmly linked to the main character, Micah Mortimer, a single man in his forties, working as a self-employed IT trouble-shooter. He lives a quiet, orderly life, a grey life; his basement flat part of a deal where he acts as an informal caretaker for the block of flats. Although one might expect him to be a loner, he has a girlfriend, Cassia, voluble married sisters, and a large extended family. When his ‘woman friend’ Cassia is threatened with homelessness because she has a cat and a teenage boy appears at his door claiming to be his son, Micah’s daily routine is blown apart. These events bringing a trail of unwelcome emotions and thoughts are the ones which, ultimately, enable him to grow as a person. A cautious man, speaking few words, he rises to the challenge. In the final scenes when he goes in search of Cassia he makes, for him, as dramatic a gesture of love as any romantic hero.
The writing is exquisite and fine-tuned in its observations. We are taken into Micah’s inner world. Here, along with disillusionment at his lack of success in life and depression about his incipient middle-age, there are more colourful goings-on. He assumes foreign accents when he speaks to himself; and there is Traffic God who regularly applauds the excellent way Micah drives - especially in comparison with others on the road. This gives us some sense of what Micah might appear to be like, seen from outside.
The point of view remains with Micah throughout and we see the cast of characters through his eyes, perhaps the most poignant being the couple in Apartment 3B where the wife, Luella Carter, is dying of lung cancer. Micah’s kindness is evident here as in other places. Both funny and sad, by the end Micah has, despite himself, engaged more fully with life than his own low expectations had credited.
Redhead by the Side of the Road is the 23rd novel by Pulitzer prize winner Anne Tyler, hardback published by Chatto & Windus.