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Anne Tyler's Everyday American, Nearing The End

Jan 13, 2010

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'Noah's Compass'

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In a country saturated with celebrity worship, novelist Anne Tyler has taken a contrarian approach, transforming everyday Americans into fully rounded, idiosyncratic characters and making us care about them.

In novel after novel, Tyler has populated Baltimore, where she has lived most of her adult life, with a cast of some extraordinary ordinaries: Cody, Ezra and Jenny Tull, whose dissembling mother, Pearl, has been deserted by their father (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, 1982); Macon Leary, the reclusive travel-guide writer whose son has been murdered (The Accidental Tourist, 1985); Ira and Maggie Moran, the long-married couple whose lives shift in a matter of hours on the day of a funeral (the Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons, 1988); and Rebecca Davitch, the newly widowed grandmother who embarks on a journey to a new self (Back When We Were Grownups, 2001).

Liam Pennywell, the central figure in Tyler's 18th novel, Noah's Compass, fits right in. He's 61 and has just been fired from a job teaching fifth grade at a second-rate private boys' school. In the first chapter, the unassuming Liam is downsizing into a starter apartment. Helping him move are Damian, his 17-year-old daughter Kitty's slacker boyfriend; and Bundy, his only pal from work. Both leave before the traditional end-of-moving-day beer and pizza. "This would likely be the final dwelling place of his life," Liam reflects on his first night in the new apartment.

How did he end up alone? Liam wonders. He adds it up: two failed marriages, three daughters who lead their own lives and a sister he seldom speaks to. After winning a philosophy award in college, Liam has, in his own estimation, spent the rest of his life failing, betraying his promise with a series of low-paying jobs for which he was overqualified.

Like most Tyler creations, Liam is due for something unexpected. With a terrible sort of grace, an unlatched patio door leads to violence. At the end of the first chapter, Liam wakes up in a hospital room with a concussion and an unsettling memory gap. He clearly fought off an intruder (there is a vicious human bite mark on his hand) but he is disturbed by the fact that he can't recall the incident. The injury — and his search for the missing hours — shocks him out of his solitude.

Noah's Compass evolves through a series of random encounters, family reconnections and memories. Through subtle shifts in perspective and a gradual unfolding of family ties, Tyler gives Liam a late-in-life chance to decide how far the power of love can take him ("So tiring sometimes, this business of engaging with other human beings," he muses). Can he open out to a life as yet unlived? Tyler's magical gifts make Noah's Compass both comforting and enlightening as it explores the familiar disappointments and challenges of our times.

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