By Anne Tyler; Knopf, 288 pages, $25.95
By Gina Webb
In Anne Tyler’s world, a coloring book is never just a coloring book. It might look like one, it might be called “Bible Stories for Tots,” and a child might even be crayoning “jagged swaths of purple” in it. It has pictures of Joseph and his jealous brothers, and one showing Abraham and his son Isaac walking up the mountain. But it’s missing the story of Noah and the flood. How can that be?
At first glance, everything in this Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s latest novel, “Noah’s Compass,” looks perfectly innocent. Tyler’s genius is to make everything appear ordinary and Norman Rockwell safe while one of her psychic earthquakes moves in undetected. Meanwhile, the routine, average lives of her characters are so easy to relate to — why, they’re just like us!
They make casseroles and teach school, they have annoying relatives and ex-spouses, they save and flatten grocery bags and store them in their kitchen cabinets. They do crossword puzzles and drink Diet Coke, and their children carry crayons in their pint-sized backpacks to color in their biblical coloring books.
“Noah’s Compass” opens with just such an unremarkable scenario: Liam Pennywell, age 61, is a former philosophy professor who has lost his most recent job as a fifth-grade teacher at a boys school. Consequently, Liam decides to retire permanently, beginning by renting a smaller apartment and getting rid of a lot of clutter. He doesn’t expect to need much from now on and, as a philosopher, this makes him happy: “Oh his life was growing purer, alright!”
After all, he’s a man with “the merest handful of friends,” a veteran of what he calls “two failed marriages” whose family — three daughters, a sister and an ex-wife — has given up on him and seldom visits. Liam doesn’t “get” anyone in his family; then again, he’s never made much of an effort. On his first night in his new apartment, just before falling asleep, he reflects on the prospect of living out his golden years all alone.
Sometime during the night, he’s attacked by an intruder and wakes up the next morning in a hospital with a concussion. He’s horrified by the violence but more so to discover that he can’t recall any details of the assault. What’s worse, he can’t find anyone who agrees that his missing memory is important. The doctors, his daughters, his ex-wife — they all tell Liam he should be glad to forget such a traumatic episode. But he can’t let it go.
Without the memory, nothing feels real to him — it’s as if he’s lost a piece of his soul. “This was not his true self, he wanted to say. This was not who he really was. His true self had gone away from him and had a crucial experience without him and failed to come back afterward.”
When he runs into Eunice, the frumpy assistant to a high-powered businessman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Liam thinks he’s found the solution. Eunice, whose job is to remember the daily details of her boss’s life, is one of those wonderfully hapless Tyler characters who “step on their own skirts,” who blush and fumble, and whose bra straps are always showing. Nevertheless, she’s exactly what Liam decides he needs: “a rememberer.”
Though he knows it’s crazy to expect her to “help him retrieve an experience she hadn’t been there for,” he’s drawn to her “as if she were some kind of talisman.” Before long, they’re eating dinner together and he notices “her clear gray eyes” and the dimples in her cheeks. But when these two lonely souls turn to each other for romance, they practically have to step over the people who’ve begun to fill up Liam’s once solitary life.
First, his youngest daughter, 17-year-old Kitty, moves in with him to escape her mother’s watchful eye. Then his middle daughter, Louise, a born-again Christian, brings her 4-year-old son for Liam to baby-sit. His oldest daughter, Xanthe, who’s given to rants, seems to visit just to express her anger toward him, and his older sister and ex-wife drop by with food, clucking over his welfare.
Each encounter offers Liam another chance to piece together the past, to examine these alien relatives of his and see what makes them tick. He sees that his real amnesia goes far beyond one night. But just as he begins to reconstruct his familial role, with Eunice as a part of it, he goes out one night to pick up a carton of milk, and everything changes. His glimpse of an entirely unknown side of Eunice’s life — and, in turn, long-forgotten parts of his own — transforms their brief romance into more of a channel for remembering and redemption than Liam could ever have anticipated.
In all of her books, Tyler, who grew up in Raleigh and now lives in Baltimore, maintains a distinctly Southern focus on family, the home and the interconnection of present and past. With “Noah’s Compass,” she asks hard questions: Should we “grab whatever happiness comes” our way? Do we deserve it? What if we damage others in the process? There are no easy answers, just as there is no 21st-century compass to tell us where to go in life, how to steer our craft safely through uncharted waters. Like Liam, perhaps the best we can hope for is to learn a little more about our fellow travelers, and ourselves, as we head homeward.