Tyler has brought exceptional skill and variety to an unaccustomed area of literary activity, the world of the best-seller. Her combination of popularity and quality recalls the great novelists of another century. Erudite guest reviewer Bob Williams looks at Tyler’s oeuvre from a broad, fascinating, and academic perspective.
By Bob Williams
It is a sunny day in the park. There is a strong but pleasant breeze to discourage mosquitoes and gnats. There are balloons decorating the
shelter and a much greater crowd than would be expected for a family reunion. Some of the men, women and children have brought their dogs and
cats. It is a gathering of Anne Tyler characters. They are all ages, one of them has recently celebrated his 100th birthday. Many of them are
morose. Others are almost manic in their jollity. There are many early adolescents, shy but willing to respond to loving interest. Some of the
young men and women are quarrelsome. There are many runaway wives and even a runaway husband or two. Many, if we could see beneath the surface, have questions about their identity. Many wish that that they could rid themselves of the one that they have and acquire another. They
are restless for change. A surprising number of the women have been abducted. There is even a boy who successfully resisted an abduction
attempt by his mother. As for the mothers, the variety is remarkable: unwed, married, deserted, cruel, cold, sensible, saintly and silly. The crowd contains many common types, some surprisingly similar experiences but for all that we see that everyone here is strikingly different and vividly interesting.
These are the fictional characters of an author that has averaged a book every two and a half years of her literary activity. The surface is
easy but what goes on below the surface is subtle. Tyler has brought exceptional skill and variety to an unaccustomed area of literary
activity, the world of the best-seller. Her combination of popularity and quality recalls the great novelists of another century. It is on
this basis that I propose to study her works.
Mostly Nuts and Bolts
In her first fifteen books Tyler has written five each of 1) books with a mixed point of view; 2) books with a single point of view and a female
protagonist; and 3) books with a single point of view and a male protagonist. One of the latter (A Patchwork Planet) is unique in that it is a first person narrative. Other rather more technical matters involve continuity/discontinuity relationships; divisions of the novel; and the number of characters.
Continuity/discontinuity. Absolute continuity is rare, existing only in novels where the question is absorbed in other literary strategies
(e.g., Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past). Most of Tyler’s novels are
reasonably described as continuous on the limited basis indicated. That is, they record events from start to finish with no significant intervals. There are four novels that depart from this: The Clock Winder, Celestial Navigation, Morgan’s Passing and Dinner at the
Homesick Restaurant. The intervals in narration in these novels constitute negative space. Within these intervals events take place but we learn of them only by measuring their consequences in the narrative or positive sections of the novel.
Divisions of the Novel.
Six books depart from the order of sequentially
numbered chapters. Breathing Lessons is divided into three parts with
Maggie’s point of view dominant in parts one and three and Ira’s point of view dominant in part two, the only part that is not subdivided into
chapters. The other exceptions are: The Clock Winder and Morgan’s
Passing, each chapter of which is labeled with a specific year; Celestial Navigation, each chapter of which is labeled with a season or seasons, a year and a person’s name; Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Saint Maybe, each chapter of which has a descriptive label. Subdivisions within chapters are achieved with a blank space or a row of
asterisks, the difference between these two is not discernible.
Number of characters.
The material above may have only passing interest but among the many technical characteristics of Tyler’s work this one is
important. She uses persons (and to some degree places) to create the reality of her fictional worlds. In this context cast of characters has
a very specialized meaning. It refers to main and minor characters that are actors in the novel and it also refers to those who are mere names
that crop up in the conversational or narrative flow of the novel. It thus includes any named person who is either onstage or offstage. By
means of this tool we can apply an almost mechanical measure to the relative effectiveness of the novels. Celestial Navigation, the weakest of Tyler’s novels for reasons to be discussed later, introduces a new character approximately only every seven pages. But the average for all of the first fifteen novels is a new character approximately every three pages. Examination of any arbitrarily chosen group of pages will demonstrate how even the mention of names contributes to the reality of the book its mite of constructive potential. An accurate count is impossible. When Tyler refers to the Conways one can assume at least two and I have so counted. The Berger Girls is harder but again I count two. References to “clans” such as the “Ballews
and Burnetts” is even more difficult and I have counted each “clan” as one, an arbitrary decision but one that permits consistency. I have
recognized the congenial importance Tyler assigns to cats and dogs and have counted them along with people. I have not counted characters that have no names. This omits, for example, the bagpipe player and the plastic raincoat salesman from If Morning Ever Comes.
Tyler uses names very subtly and it is convenient to discuss this here. She often withholds the details of a name, acting on her own interpretation of the reader’s need to know. For example, inBack When We Were Grownups Hakim is present at the picnic that opens the book but we do not learn his last name (Abdulazim) until many pages later where, if we are paying attention, the disclosure has its effect. In the same book we have to reconstruct the name of the father of Min Foo’s first child
from various inferences and clues to arrive at Professor Lawrence Drake. This type of variability is one way in which the author can duplicate the conditions of reality where we must work from inferences and clues to construct whatever we need to know. But sometimes Tyler overreaches herself. Only a fanatically dedicated reader of Breathing Lessons will
connect the early reference to the forgotten Mary Jean Bennett to her later appearance, appropriately fleeting, in the home movie of Max and Serena’s wedding.
The Art of Flight
One of Tyler’s runaways, Pearl Tull’s husband in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant says “My family wasn’t so much…but it’s all there
really is, in the end.” In Beck’s case this may be the ultimate counsel of desperation but, before the family and home look good, everything
else must look very bad or present less favorable alternatives. In pursuit of this sad truth, Tyler’s characters leave home abruptly like Ben Joe in If Morning Ever Comes. He leaves and conceals the fact that he is also eloping. It is not always wise to trust the family where
marriage is concerned. Peter Emerson (The Clock Winder) brings his wife home but this causes problems since he never told his family that he was married. Like Ben Joe, he leaves abruptly but, unlike Ben Joe, does so without a formal farewell. The home may be the ultimate refuge but until that ultimate moment of
realization it can be a trap. Meg Peck (Searching for Caleb) is tired of the ramshackle life of her parents and, attempting to escape, she makes
a miserable marriage to a momma’s boy. Caleb Peck leaves his prosperous but stuffy family for a more colorful life that becomes more and more
painfully narrow. A family member rescues him from his bitingly miserable existence but life has planted restlessness too deeply in him and he runs away from his rescuer.
Delia Grinstead (Ladder of Years) is a runaway by installments. She leaves the beach where her husband has walked out on a quarrel instead
of striving to reach an understanding. She fantazises about walking down the Atlantic coast all the way to Florida but is turned aside by a new
and ugly real estate project. She returns to her vacation cabin, calls for her cat and is answered by a repairman whose name and the cat’s name
are the same. He shows her his van and she impulsively asks for a ride. She gets down in an attractive town by impulse and for over a year lives there with a personality very different from that with which she lived with her family. In short, each step of her flight is improvised and
each improvisation overwrites with new capacities and directions all her old preconceptions. Earlier in Ladder of Years Delia was swept up in the improvisations of another. This was a stranger who, anxious to impress his estranged wife, begs Delia to masquerade as his girl friend. The man’s actions constitute a kind of abduction since Delia gives herself up to another’s
control. Tyler sees the value of abduction as a method for disrupting the set and often painful pattern of home and family. In Earthly Possessions Charlotte Emory is running away from her husband again when she becomes the hostage of an inept bank robber. When Delia steps in to prevent a mother from abducting the woman’s son, a chain of events occurs that disrupts the pattern of her new, borrowed life.
A more curious example of Tyler’s use of the abduction motif occurs in A Slipping-Down Life. Evie arranges with her girl friends that they
should abduct her husband, a rock singer, for publicity. Circumstances prevent her from following through with her project and, when she next sees her husband, he is in bed with one of his abductors.
The characters in The Tin Can Tree are especially restless. Ansel Green runs away and comes back drunk. Joan Pike runs away and comes back without anyone having noticed her absence. Simon Pike runs away and precipitates the awakening from grief of his mother.
Elizabeth Abbott (The Clock Winder), fed up with the Emerson family,
returns home, becomes engaged to marry but runs away on her wedding day. Mary Tell (Celestial Navigation) runs away from Jeremy, not her husband exactly but the father of all but one of her children. In Searching for Caleb there are more runaways than just Caleb. Duncan, just as his grandmother and Caleb had done, runs away from the oppressive Peck
family. The most monstrous of Tyler’s mothers, Pearl Tull (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant) alienates everyone but the only runaway is her husband, Beck. A reader, however, could become justifiably dizzy with
all the partings in The Accidental Tourist. Sarah leaves Macon. Their
son Ethan has already left them by that most final of leavetakings, death. Both of Macon’s brothers have been left by their wives. Macon’s
sister leaves Julian to return home to care for her two divorced brothers. Macon leaves Muriel – herself a divorced woman – to be reunited with Sarah whom he leaves to be reunited with Muriel. In Breathing Lessons Maggie walks out on Ira and fantasizes about a life away from her husband, a fantasy to be fulfilled for Delia in Ladder of Years. Jesse and his wife are divorced. The wife and her child visit Maggie but, unable to cope with the chaos of her life, decamp. Lucy Dean (Saint Maybe) is a divorcee and Min Foo (Back When We Were Grownups) is on her third marriage, the health and durability of which is questionable. Although Gower Morgan (Morgan’s Passing) may be perceived as having devised a method to stay home and to leave it by his constant impersonations, he is eventually obliged by the reality of his lover’s pregnancy to leave his wife and children. In his disguise of a doctor in
the opening scene of the book he in a manner abducts the woman who eventually becomes his lover. Thus, whether responsibly or irresponsibly, it proves possible to unknot the ties that bind whenever they become too painful. If one can measure the success of the flight by the permanence with which the ties are unbound, only the men are successful: Gower Morgan (Morgan’s Passing), Peter Emerson (The Clock Winder), Macon Leary (The Accidental Tourist) and, probably, Caleb Peck (Searching for Caleb.) The flight of the women are usually failures on the basis indicated. They return or are otherwise reunited with their husbands although Evie Decker (A
Slipping-Down Life) permanently leaves her philandering, unambitious husband, Elizabeth Abbott (The Clock Winder) runs away from a rejected bridegroom and some of the minor characters, shallow and frivolous,
abandon husband and children permanently. If most of Tyler’s women return to home and husband, it may reflect Barnaby Gaitlin’s (A Patchwork Planet) conclusion, after his having observed so many old
couples, that persistence is the key to a happy marriage and that after a number of years the person that you have married becomes the right
person for you.
Mothers and Others
When Bee (Saint Maybe) dies or Rose (The Accidental Tourist) marries, it becomes clear that it is the woman who holds home and family together. When Delia (Ladder of Years) runs away from her husband, his children desert him because they cannot do without the buffer that Delia
provided between them and him. Beck Tull (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant), sailing blithely past his son’s accusation that he had
abandoned his children to Pearl, a viciously cruel woman, claims that she had raised her children successfully. To Tyler a mother must be very
bad indeed to be a complete failure and perhaps the only complete failure is the drug-destroyed Lucy of Saint Maybe. In some of the novels Tyler pairs good and bad mothers, bad being the relative term indicated above. In If Morning Ever Comes, for example, Ben Joe’s mother is cold and aloof while her dead husband’s mistress is caring and understanding. In Dinner at the Homesick Reastaurant Pearl is in stark contrast to Josiah’s mother.
Some mothers are ambiguous. Was Justine Peck (Searching for Caleb) a bad mother because her daughter was such a poor fit with her parents? Of the mothers who abandon their children (Charlotte Emory of Earthly
Possessions or Delia Grinstead of Ladder of Years) circumstances vary. Charlotte’s children have little relevance to her actions. Assuming a happy outcome to her situation as a hostage, one may conclude that she
could not have returned to her family any sooner than she did. Delia’s children, on the other hand, had much to do with her becoming a fugitive
since they neither knew nor cared to know what their mother thought or felt.
Tyler endows mothers with more rights than she burdens them with obligations. Some of the awfulness of that most awful mother, Pearl Tull
(Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant) is mitigated by the poignancy of her dying and her frequent realization that her cruelty is a wrong but
ineradicable part of her nature. Although it does nothing to modify her cruelty, her conviction that some things, her nastiness for one, are fated serves to salve her conscience. Mrs. Emerson (The Clock Winder) is one of Tyler’s difficult mothers. As a class these mothers are scarcely likeable and not very intelligent. Their difference from Pearl Tull is
largely their possession of somewhat more self-control. They have in addition, as Pearl does not, some sense of others. Eleanor Grinstead
(Ladder of Years), for example, although an obnoxious person, is the only member of the family to communicate with sensitivity and understanding with her absconded daughter-in-law. Standing by herself is the breathtakingly silly Maggie Moran of
Breathing Lessons. She has a significant inability to distinguish between fact and fancy. Her unfortunate tendency in this regard is enhanced by an occasional coincidence favorable to her fanciful wishes. She can sometimes be right even though she is always wrong. Given the constituent parts of this extravagantly assembled family, it is
irrelevant to raise the question regarding her merits as a mother.
Breathing Lessons is, in fact, a brilliant example of literary slapstick as well as a consideration of serious matters within the framework of farce. But good or bad, inconspicuous or outrageous, Tyler’s mothers seldom see their children realistically. Their most compelling imperative is to make their children over according to their own ideas. Rebecca Davitch (Back When We Were Grownups) is an exception. She may “nay, often is” confused about her identity and the goals appropriate for her but she is
refreshingly realistic about her daughters, possibly because they are all so very weird.
The Culture War
Ben Joe (If Morning Ever Comes) is away at college. He has left behind prized possessions that include a stack of National Geographics. From this, the first novel, up to The Accidental Tourist, nobody reads anything except newspapers and magazines. Charlotte Emory’s parents
(Earthly Possessions) have the classics in a locked bookcase. Otherwise
nobody owns books although young girls read the Nancy Drew books: the boys apparently don’t read anything. The Accidental Tourist approaches cultural literacy gingerly. Sarah Leary is an English teacher (one of
several in Tyler’s novels and none of them have very happy or positive associations) and mentions reading a book. Macon Leary is a writer but only his sister Rose takes his travel books seriously. She keeps them in a bookcase, contents otherwise unspecified. Macon’s books are subliterary but they are the closest thing to literature of his publisher’s products.
Maggie Moran (Breathing Lessons) transfers a stack of library books from car to its trunk. The books are by Dostoyevsky and Mann. They are unread and seriously overdue. Delia (Ladder of Years) runs away from home and adopts a new personality, one that reads among others Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald. She becomes dissatisfied with her former fare of romance novels. And Barnaby (A Patchwork Planet) thinks that his
brother’s home needs something decorative like books or pictures. In short, there is almost no character in a novel by Tyler that would
read a novel by Tyler.
In The Accidental Tourist there is mention of a portrait, a portrait painter and a sculptor. One of Jenny Tull’s husbands (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant) was a painter but we never learn what or how he painted. There is an artist of sorts in Celestial Navigation but the description of what he does, how he does it and what motivates him is feeble, an outsider’s view, something more hopefully tacked on than convincing. Some of the flaws in this presentation spring from larger flaws in the novel itself. Almost all references to music are of the popular sort: blues, hymns or rock. The odious Mrs. Daley (Breathing Lessons) always played classical music for her child Maggie and looked down her nose at other forms of
music. Barnaby’s mother (A Patchwork Planet) is a culture snob and when
Barnaby “reluctantly”attends a family gathering at her home, there is a symphony on the stereo. Barnaby does not describe this, as he very
well might have, as pretentious but he does say ” couldn’t decide where to go” and “the symphony on the stereo was building louder and louder, ending and ending forever. It reminded me of some huge, frantic animal crashing around the bars of its cage”. We are very far from the lively interest in the arts of Carson McCullers or Henry Miller. Tyler goes so far in fact as to equate
artistic interests and tastes with shallowness, bad character and evil disposition. This conspicuous preference for ignorance widens into other areas. There is much concern about money but no interest in economics. The typical Tyler character ignores the news for the personals, the
horoscope and Ann Landers.
Tyler has grave doubts about the value of a college education. Ben Joe (If Morning Ever Comes) has doubts about it although his concerns are merged with others and he returns to college at the end of the novel as
if it were natural and necessary. Duncan Peck (Searching for Caleb) leaves college, marries his first cousin and takes up life as a goat herder. Ira Moran (Breathing Lessons) must abandon his college plans to take up other obligations, a situation that occurs also in Saint Maybe,
Earthly Possessions and Back When We Were Grownups. Ira is unhappy with his son for pusuing music instead of college. Elizabeth Abbott (The
Clock Winder) drifts away from college and Barnaby (A Patchwork Planet) regards it with antipathy. In a retrograde action Leon (Morgan’s
Passing) gives up acting and turns to banking. This may certainly reflect the questionable nature of a man as ready as he is to give up wife and child. Jenny Tull survives her mother to become a doctor although she has to pass through an agony of self-doubt and mental
turmoil to do so (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.) One of Macon Leary’s most insistent traits and one which many would find
reprehensible is his compulsion to correct the grammatical errors of others (The Accidental Tourist), a habit conspicuous in Joel Miller (Ladder of Years) and perhaps a deciding factor in Delia’s rejection of him in favor of her husband.
Although one may very well regard Tyler’s characters as so complicated on the personal level that they do not need further elaborations, must for her purposes be Lear’s unaccomodated man, the fact remains that her treatment of culture in its widest sense as an evil remains. It seems gratuitous and it seems odd and it is inexplicable.
The Weakest Link, Uncelestial Navigation
This book stubbornly refuses to work. It is hard to imagine that what motivates Jeremy to engage with reality would really work on a naive,
self-absorbed agoraphobic. Those chapters that profess to be from his point of view are convincingly limited but the consequences are his
actions and these consequences do not convince.
The individual parts, if we consider them as parts, usually elicit pleasure subject to the reservation indicated above but the parts do not
form a whole and not all of the parts are credible. The sudden emergence of Olivia as a vampiric figure is too sudden to appear as more than a functional device. Tyler brings Olivia on in her new role, exhausts her potential and writes her out of the story. The section is a pleasure to
read but the reader must struggle in vain to make it an integral part of the novel. Throughout this book there was more on the author’s mind than she was able to express. In Morgan’s Passingthe protagonist approaches events as possibilities to be modified by his impersonations. He is, like Iago, an artist of events and the novel constitutes an extroverted (and successful) interpretation of Celestial Navigation.
The Gift of Laughter
Some of Tyler’s characters are a little nasty and her themes are serious but she has a vivid sense of fun. It ranges from the classical humor of fantastically exact description to the more knockabout area of farcical situations. The Leary family (The Accidental Tourist) is one of Tyler’s great comic
inventions. Something has gone awry in their lives and they are all happiest with each other. Isolated by choice from the world, they develop along their own lines with perceptions and habits that are ludicrously unlike those of anyone else. Julian Edge, Macon’s publisher, finds the Leary family intriguing. Since the Learys are unaware that they are raging eccentrics, Julian is able to observe them freely despite Macon’s discomfort when he does so.
In the living room, Charles was doggedly debating whether they should answer the phone in case it rang, in case it might be Porter, in case he needed them to consult a map. “Chances are, though, he won’t bother calling,” he decided, “because he knows we wouldn’t answer. Or I don’t know, maybe he figures we would answer even so, because we’re worried.” “Do you always give this much thought to your phone calls?” Julian asked. Macon said, “Have some coffee, Julian. Try it black” “Why, thank you,” Julian said. He accepted a mug and studied the
inscription that arched across it. “CENTURY OF PROGRESS 1933” He read off. He grinned and raised the mug in a toast. “To progress,” he said. “Progress” Rose and Charles echoed. Macon scowled. Julian said, “What do you do for a living, Charles?” “I make bottle caps.” “Bottle caps! Is that a fact!” “Oh, well! it’s no big thing,” Charles said. “I mean it’s not half as
exciting as it sounds, really.”
After a typically turbulent family dinner in A Patchwork Planet,
Barnaby dryly remarks “After that we had a fairly normal evening, but it was just because all of us were exhausted.” In her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, Tyler invents romantic entanglements of Shakespearian proportions with the shifting allegiances of two young women and three young men. The chapter in which the relationships begin to be sorted out is rich in absurdities. But, until
she begins those novels with a Baltimore setting, the humor is more in subtle details and is easier to experience than to describe. The killing
of the Thanksgiving turkey in The Clock Winder (the first Baltimore novel), too long to quote, is, despite its horrifying conclusion, an extravangza of comic invention.
Art for the Millions
Tyler is receptive to one form of art, significantly one that is less than entirely convinced that it is an art, photography. It appears prominently in her second novel, The Tin Can Tree. Its male protagonist is a professional photographer with an interest in capturing images that, while not commercially valuable, have great worth to him. Some of his work, unconventional portraits, anticipate the similar photographic work of Charlotte Emory (Earthly Possessions) with her subjects in
costume. The personal image need not always be photographic. The sisters in The Tin Can Tree use a silhouette of a man to ward off felonious intruders. The Clock Winder refers to this as a simile. The twinform, or dressing figure of A Patchwork Planet, may be an extension of this theme and much of the artistic activity of Jeremy in Celestial Navigation concerns simplified images (however complexly constructed) of figures with
specific identities. But photographers and later photographs constitute an important
element in Tyler’s novels. The betrayer of Mary Tell in Celestial Navigation is a photographer. The runaway wife of Daniel Peck in Searching for Caleb takes a picture of Caleb. Daniel carries this picture with him everywhere in his search for Caleb despite the fact
that it is too old and too lacking in detail to be of any use. In Morgan’s Passing and in Back When We Were Grownups photographs accumulate on the family bulletin board or on the refrigerator like layers of geological periods. The same accumulations (sequential but horizontal rather than vertical) appears in the reconditioned movies in
Back When We Were Grownups. The owner of the camera came only on
holidays with the result that the pictures jump from Christmas to Christmas with an occasional Easter thrown in. Morgan’s Passing, beyond the accumulation of photographs, has a more sensitive and highly significant use for photographs. Morgan’s sister is
reunited with and marries her old boy friend but he drives her to flight because he forever moons over an old photograph of her. It is clearly
not the woman that she is but the girl that used to be that matters to him. And Morgan falls in love with Emily when he sees the vacation
pictures that she had taken. These are not candids but carefully posed pictures, heavy with reality. If in Morgan’s Passing a photograph may be better than reality, in
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant a step-son rejects the possibility
that a photograph of a young girl can be of his step-mother as a child. The collection of photographs from which this one comes is the discovery of the family-centered son, Ezra. His sister tells him not to send any to their brother who would only throw them away. Although it is tempting to establish a connection between the instinct to nurture and the perception of value in old photographs, Will in Back When We Were Grownups has no more nurturing ability than Ezra’s brother but at least
professes a desire to see the Davitch family album. It is possible that Will, jealous of Rebecca and her Davitch relationship, might have other
motives in play than those that we are considering. But the brother that allegedly would have thrown away the photographs may have been judged too harshly. When he tries to establish better relations with his estranged son, the best he can manage is to talk about time – he is an efficiency expert – and how photographs are
monuments of time and mementos of lost opportunities.
There are two mentions of bookcases in The Accidental Tourist. One of
them holds books of a sort (Macon Leary’s travel books) and what else Tyler does not say. Similarly the bookcase of the Dugan’s, Muriel’s
parents, holds the family album. What else Tyler does not say. The Leary family watches the honeymoon pictures of Rose and Julian but the film is defective and the images unreal and distorted, a fitting metaphor for the absurd marriage ahead where Julian has to move in with the Learys in order to keep Rose as his wife.
In Ladder of Years a very important figure is a retired photographer and he provides a positive impulse toward Delia’s return to her family
when he describes a photograph that he has always admired, one in which the family is significantly absent but in which the photographer
anticipates, in the old photographer’s imagination, its arrival. Tyler’s conception of photography (and in Celestial Navigation Jeremy’s collages and constructions) is of a utilitarian act that results in an unpretentious product. It may have a deeper value but the value is adventitious, marginally aesthetic. Jeremy of Celestial Navigation must pay the price of his aesthetic commitment at the cost of his being an
Food, Beautiful Food
Right from the very beginning Tyler has no doubts about food and no doubts about those who serve it lovingly. Gram in If Morning Ever Comes promises her returned grandson a special dinner although since she cooks
everything in deep fat her intention may be better than the result. Caleb Peck (Searching for Caleb) is a skilled chef and his niece with her careless attitude to food is a great puzzle to him and because
Justine is careless about food it may be inevitable that she is a failure with her daughter. Rebecca Davitch (Back When We Were Grownups) is a hostess, a presider over the distribution of food, an almost priestly office. Unfortunately for her her caterer is often Biddy, her daughter, and Biddy, unlike her buxom mother, is thin and anorexic. She is dedicated to food but to food that no one wants to eat and when she offers snail patties to the children they are understandably upset. Ezra (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant) is the high priest of food. He is obsessed with food because he is compelled to nurture and food is the
tool of his compulsion. Unlike Cody and Jenny, his siblings, he has illusions that his family is normal and can join in familial amity. The title is ironic in that the Tull family have, out of many attempts,
never completed a meal at the Homesick Restaurant but have quarreled and departed in anger with each other every time. Ezra’s mother, Pearl, is his antithesis. The food she prepares is
scant, carelessly prepared and tasteless. But meals afford her the opportunity to be herself “viciously and meanly abusive”. Ezra has an obvious sweetness but it is also obvious that, like many Tyler children, he is as determined to be as unlike his parents as he knows how. Unlike
his absconded father he is loyal but his principal aim is to be unlike his mother. In the context of children striving to be unlike a parent it is worth remarking that Maggie Moran (Breathing Lessons), a bad cook, is so determined to be unlike her snooty and crushing mother (an English teacher and by now we know what this means to Tyler) that she has, she reflects sadly, become like her silly father. The semi-abduction of Delia Grinstead (Ladder of Years) significantly takes place in a supermarket. When she comes to rest in Bay Borough she discovers a congenial café with an accomplished chef and she herself offers her service as housekeeper (nurturer) to an abandoned father and his son.
There can be few things as common as food and her novels – like the works of Homer – are the “eatingest” books. If one further examines how much she makes of newspapers, magazines, photographs, enthusiastic religions and food (and how little she makes of intellectual or artistic
pursuits), she appears as an author, curiously like James Joyce in this respect, that celebrates the ordinary and the commonplace.
That Old Time Religion
Clergyman drift to and fro in Tyler’s novels. Her regard for them is seldom more than tepid. They do what is necessary to be done at weddings
and funerals but their importance is slight. When NoNo and Barry (Back When We Were Grownups) find it difficult to find a clergyman to officiate at their wedding, they turn to a waitress that has a mail-order degree in divinity. She, to the relief of NoNo’s mother, is a
stately woman of great personal dignity and not at all the freak that she had feared. The general run of clergy are at their worst when they try to be relevant. The young nameless priest ofDinner at the Homesick Restaurant is comically out of his astonishingly shallow depth when he tries to talk to Jenny about what he perceives to be her step-son’s
problems. The more formal the religion the more out of touch and useless its ministers. But the religions of the people receive no unqualified endorsement. The evangelist preacher in A Slipping-Down Life is helpless when the subject of his denunciations stands up and answers back. Saul Emory (Earthly
Possessions) becomes a preacher for the unappetizingly named Holy Basis Church without consulting his wife and without her approval, a major source of the trouble between them.
Although most Tyler characters have no special use for religion of any kind, Tyler does meet religion head-on in Saint Maybe. Ian Bedloe is guilty of the suicide death of his brother. Ian seeks out religion to help him deal with his guilt but it repels him with its shallow and
sterile façade of formality. In these circumstances he discovers by accident the Church of the Second Chance, a store front-church that has some Quaker characteristics in that members of the congregation address
their petitions to the congregation, usually for spiritual or material help. Ian finds this funny and his display of amusement shames him and
he asks the congregation’s help to recover his self-esteem and the relative virtue that he once had. It is the preacher himself that has made up the rules and rites of the Church of the Second Chance. He admits that it is something of a crazyquilt and he is intelligent, compassionate and has spiritual integrity. That he has these qualities constitutes a question rather than an answer about Tyler’s intentions. Such qualities as the Rev. Emmett possesses are not found in real
street-front churches where the doctrines and leaders are much simpler, much coarser. One must suspect that Tyler invented what Ian needed and not what he would be likely to find.
Pearl Tull is more idiosyncratic in her search for redemption (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant). She is blind, she is dying. Her son, kindly and loyal Ezra, goes through the accumulated photographs and describes
them to her. He reads from the diaries that she kept as a girl. She is intent on what he reads but makes no comments and hustles him on until
he finds the passage that she wants.
“Early this morning” he read to his mother, “I went out behind the house to weed. Was kneeling in the dirt by the stable with my pinafore a
mess and perspiration rolling down my back, wiped my face on my sleeve, reached for the trowel, and all at once thought, Why I believe that at just this moment I am absolutely happy.” His mother stopped rocking and grew very still.
“The Bedloe girl’s piano scales were floating out her window,” he read, “and a bottle fly was buzzing in the grass, and I saw that I was
kneeling on such a green little planet. I don’t care what else might come about, I have had this moment. It belongs to me.” That was the end of the entry. He fell silent. “Thank you, Ezra” his mother said. “There’s no need to read any more.”
As Faust put it “Ah, still delay thou art so fair.” To Pearl as to many salvation is behind us and not ahead of us. If flawed Pearl can find her
eternity, there is hope for the rest of us.
A Quick and Final Look
Any novel by Tyler is unmistakably hers. From the beginning she writes with lucidity and humor. The three North Carolina novels (If Morning Ever Comes, The Tin Can Tree and A Slipping-Down Life) have some of the deliberate insularity of regional fiction but The Clock Winder emerges as, however firmly fixed in place, a work with broader connections, a
more satisfying permeability. Celestial Navigation by comparison with
its predecessor and its successors travels a wobbly course. Searching for Caleb, the immediate successor to Celestial Navigation, is a product of full maturity, a work fit to rank amomg the best novels ever written. With a novelist who is at the height of her powers it is foolish to speak of a “late period” of her creations. Earthly Possessions and Morgan’s Passing suffer slightly from eccentricities of, respectively, situation or character and Saint Maybe is a difficult book to assess because of the incomplete fusion of the religious trappings with reality but the rest of the works admit of no dispute. There is some modest
experimentation – labeled chapters, a narrative in the first person – but the great consistency is more remarkable than novelty and the
ingenuity of Tyler’s manipulation is as subtle as her characters are endearing.
If Morning Ever Comes If Morning Ever Comes
The Tin Can Tree The Tin Can Tree
A Slipping Down Life A Slipping Down Life
The Clock Winder The Clock Winder
Celestial Navigation Celestial Navigation
Searching for Caleb Searching for Caleb
Earthly Possessions Earthly Possessions
Morgan’s Passing Morgan’s Passing
Saint Maybe Saint Maybe
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
Breathing Lessons Breathing Lessons
The Accidental Tourist The Accidental Tourist
Back When We Were Grownups Back When We Were Grownups
Ladder of Years Ladder of Years
A Patchwork Planet A Patchwork Planet