Anne Tyler has won so many plaudits over the past 50 odd years that it’s hard to think of new superlatives to add. But reading this enjoyable novel – her 23rd – it struck me that there can’t be a writer, of either gender, who creates more engaging or multi-dimensional men. Aren’t some of her most memorable and satisfying novels those where she plumbs the male human heart and psyche with all of her customary tenderness and honesty? Who can forget Saint Maybe’s self-lacerating Ian Bedloe, or the poles-apart brothers from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant? Or – probably my favourite – the heart-wrenched Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist?
And now – chiming eerily at least in name with Macon – here’s fortysomething Micah, blue-eyed, with “not-so-good posture”, clad in jeans and a “partially erased looking” brown leather jacket. After he walked away from an IT startup, Micah now runs Tech Hermit and runs around the neighbourhood fixing computer problems for old ladies who – and you’d be right to bet Tyler mines this for full comic potential – don’t know what a modem is or does.
Micah knows that his modestly selling manual, the delectably titled “First, Plug It In”, is unlikely to make him rich. So his second day-job is as apartment caretaker and general odd-job man. He lives rent-free, alone, keeps to himself and sticks to a routine “etched in stone”: Friday is vacuuming day, Monday floor-mopping, and so on. Even his relationship with his “restful to look at” teacher girlfriend has, by his own admission, “solidified”. Nevertheless, as he regularly reassures himself, he has “no reason to feel unhappy”.
No long-term reader of Tyler will be surprised to hear that all of this careful, oddball living, this unswerving rigidity, is about to be thrown furiously and entertainingly off balance. For it is after all a perennial Tyler theme: the decent, mundane, settling-for-less kind of life whose uneasy decorum is suddenly exploded by the random, the uncontrolled, the latent sense of what might have been. Still, it’s hard to remember when she last exploded it to such satisfying and disarming effect.
Two things happen. First the disaffected, fatherless teenage son of Micah’s high-school sweetheart turns up on his doorstep. Having managed to convince himself that Micah might actually be his real father, he has – to the latter’s consternation – soon inveigled himself into the spare room. At the same time, Micah’s girlfriend, suddenly threatened with eviction from her own apartment, is clearly waiting to be asked to move in. Wholly unrealising – “he hated it when women expected you to read their minds” – Micah jokes that she could always sleep in her car. Unsurprisingly, she declares the relationship over.
Meanwhile, managing to misread his teenage guest with equal aplomb – “he had handled this all wrong, he realised. But even given a second chance, he wasn’t sure what he’d do differently” – Micah sends him packing. Alone again – and uneasily aware of the “nagging ache in the hollow of his chest” – he wonders why his rigid routines suddenly don’t feel quite so comforting. He tries skipping his customary shower and shave, but – and here’s how to nail the essence of a character in one deft stroke – can’t seem to come up with “any further ways to indulge himself”.
Tyler rarely disappoints, but this is her best novel in some time – slender, unassuming, almost cautious in places, yet so very finely and energetically tuned, so apparently relaxed, almost flippantly so, but actually supremely sophisticated. Slippery, too. It appears at first sight to be a novel about a good and well-meaning man – a man who, as Micah brokenly tells his girlfriend, set out to “make no mistakes at all”. But in fact it’s a tale of someone who has opted out, who has doggedly failed to engage, who’s made a habit of walking away from almost everything.
But Tyler’s ability to make you care about her characters is amazing, and never more so than here. Certainly, in Micah, she’s created a man to puzzle and worry about, to ache and to root for. Even his ongoing interior monologue – evoked in the kind of mild, deadpan, indirect speech she’s always done so well – creates a brand of domestic suspense that manages to be both hilarious and painful at the same time.
Finally, in a stroke that is pure Tyler, that “redhead” of the title isn’t at all what you think. What seems at first to be no more than an incidental detail blooms and morphs and takes root in your imagination until at last, closing the book, you realise that actually none of her novels has been better named.
• Redhead By the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler is published by Vintage (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15