Magazine article The Spectator

The Feel-Good Factor

Magazine article The Spectator

The Feel-Good Factor

Article excerpt

One of Anne Tyler's earlier novels was entitled Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and it is homesickness for decent an( good-hearted behaviour that seems tc characterise her stories. They are all quite deliberately similar, set in a Baltimore more redolent of a small town in the 1950 than of a thriving contemporary metro polis, and they have as their hero (and he i a hero) a sweet-natured under-achieve] who manages to convince the reader of his unassailable worth. This under-achiever iz generally a man for whom the author feels considerable fondness, to judge by the gen erous fate she reserves for him. Womer seem to be favoured only when they display the same wacky tendencies as their veil mildly delinquent counterparts. Delia Grin stead in Ladder of Years, Maggie Moran ir Breathing Lessons, can be relied on to be antisocial and thus earn their credentials Under the guise of a certain suburban gen tility Anne Tyler harbours subversive ten dencies. It is the sort of subversion that car only be practised by a true insider foi whom an aberrant freedom can be seen tc beckon.

The peculiar charm for the reader lies ir both the social safety, with all its neigh bourhood customs, and the enticing ability to walk away from it all. She will empower her hero in ways not perhaps available to ordinary citizens, permit him to be dysfunctional in a manner not normally tolerated. Barnaby Gaitlin, the protagonist of A Patchwork Planet, though instantly beguiling, has a tendency to appropriate small objects from the homes of old people for whom he provides a service in his capacity as employee of Rent-a-Back, an admirable outfit which shifts heavy furniture, puts up and takes down Christmas trees, and carries supermarket bags for those too frail to deal with these matters for themselves.

He is the graduate of a vaguely progressive approved school, yet 'I am a man you can trust' is his claim in the opening sentence, and so it proves to be. He is also hopeless as a husband, a parent, and indeed a son, but in this last capacity much can be forgiven him: his mother insists on reminding him how much his fines have cost her. This mother, from the wrong side of the tracks, still feels the strains of her origins when they come into conflict with the prevailing Gaitlin mythology. This maintains that everyone has a guardian angel, in humdrum mortal guise, who will deliver the coded message enabling them to make sense of the future.

Naturally when Barnaby spills a cup of coffee over the maidenly Sophia and immediately tells her of his misgivings on going to visit his daughter on the wrong day, he is in the market for a message which she supplies. …

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