Anne Tyler’s quirky characters always resonate with me, from the annoying travel writer in The Accidental Tourist to meddling Maggie in Breathing Lessons. Her setting in Redhead By the Side of the Road is once again Baltimore, and again she has family as the fulcrum for examining the life of her hero.
Micah Mortimer is a forty something bachelor who manages an old apartment house for the free rent in the basement, and dabbles in computer repair with his small company Tech Hermit. Micah has a structured and organized life, bordering on obsessive – the kind of guy who must have all the pencils sharpened and lined up, if he used them, and has a schedule for cleaning, eating, waking up, and most of his life. Although he has had girlfriends, Cass, an elementary school teacher, is the latest he has lost, and he is befuddled by what he did to make her leave him.
Brink, a young freshman in college, and the son of Micah’s first love, appears suddenly at his doorstep. Brink is running away allegedly looking for his birth father, but the real reasons surface later. Micah gives the boy coffee and a place to sleep for one night, assuring Brink he could not be his father (he never slept with his mother), and then sends him away when the boy refuses to call his mother to reassure her. Eventually, Brink confesses and reunites with his family, but not before he ruffles old memories in Micah.
The redhead at the side of the road makes an appearance only twice in the story, and both times this reader wonders if it is symbolic of Micah getting older with his eyesight starting to fail, or some manifestation of his own desperate life – the redhead appears to be sitting, huddled with her head down and clasping her knees. The first time the redhead appeared, I laughed out loud when Tyler revealed the true identity. The second time, I wondered if his not seeing clearly said something about his relationships.
Through a series of incidents with his family – all older sisters and broods; with Lorna, Brinks’s mother; and with a funny assortment of customers needing help with their computers, Micah reevaluates his life and comes to a moment of awakening. The ending reveals his vulnerability and offers hope for better connections with human nature. Tyler wryly reaffirms it’s always a good time to change your life.
This might be the best time to read Tyler’s story, not only for Tyler’s subtle humor but also for her message. When all of us are experiencing our routines being changed through circumstances we cannot control, reading about a man whose life seemed happy with his ordinary regimen and suddenly has to adjust to outside forces is relatable. It’s comforting to know he not only survived but life got better – eventually.