Redhead by the Side of the Road: Book Review


Redhead by the Side of the Road
Anne Tyler
Chatto & Windus
£14.99

Micah Mortimer is an oddball. In his mid-forties with a poor posture he lives alone in a basement flat which offers him free rent in return for his caretaking. Growing up in what he considered a chaotic family household among five noisy sisters with ‘their boundless tolerance for clutter’ may have encouraged his eccentric solitary lifestyle. What could be bordering on OCD behaviour, he follows a rigid daily discipline of putting out bins and allotting times for various domestic duties in his quest for an orderly existence. Monday is floor-mopping day and in the evenings he plays solitaire, but not with an audience or houseguests because ‘they seeped into all the corners’.
His brittle involvement with lady friends leaves him wounded and he feels now any new relationship detracts from the previous one making him more impoverished emotionally as a result. So he comes to the conclusion that it is safer to live a blinkered life with minimal human contact. It is not that he is unkind; he is affable to everyone he meets and even goes out of his way to help the terminally ill Luella Carter in apartment 3B.
Micah set up an IT company called Tech Hermit and even wrote a manual called Fist, plug it in. He does call-outs to various clients in the neighbourhood but, while polite at all times, he does not really relate to people. And so immersed is he in his own self he even fails to pick up on flirtatious overtures from some lonely ladies whose computers he repairs. This myopia is evident even in his daily morning jog where he confuses a red water hydrant for a person. Hence the title of the book: Redhead by the Side of the Road which seems to contain Tyler’s message for the reader. When Micah repeatedly makes the same mistake with the water hydrant, in a semi-epiphanic moment, he berates himself at how repetitious all his thoughts were and ‘how his entire life ran in a rut’.
When Cassia Slade, a fourth-grade teacher and Micah’s current girlfriend, is evicted from her flat over an incident with a cat, he fails to understand her dilemma. Instead of inviting her to stay with him, as she often did, he unwittingly offends her by offering his room instead to a stranger, a young college guy called Brink. The latter claims spuriously that Micah could be his father on the basis of a relationship Micah had years ago with an old college friend, Lorna.
The ensuing attempt to disprove Brink’s claim highlights how fundamentally vulnerable and naïve Micah really is; and it is perhaps these qualities which could endear him to readers more so than his odd ways. He remembers witnessing Lorna kissing another fellow at the time in question and ‘she hung onto his arm with both hands’ when they were walking, as if that were the incriminatory action in Micah’s eyes.
Micah is so lacking in confidence with the opposite sex, he asks Lorna during a quiet moment after she comes with her corporate lawyer husband to claim back her son from Micah’s flat, if she knows what it is about Micah that turns women off? She expresses surprise when he tells her how all his relationships eventually dissolve; how his women friends start acting kind of distracted like ‘they remember somewhere else they prefer to be’.
Although this is a little book of less than 200 pages, it packs a punch in a perceptive and humorous way. It may inspire the reader to tackle some of Anne Tyler’s longer and prize-winning novels.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 01/08/2020.

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Author: James Lawless

Irish novelist, poet and short story writer.

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