Anne Tyler, Maryland’s Novelist

Posted on March 26, 2010

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Anne Tyler, one of America’s great writers, lives in Baltimore. She’s written 18 novels, and I’ve read all but one. Many of her best stories are in Baltimore. Eddie’s on Roland Avenue pops up in several. The characters are human, and the places real.

Her new book, “Noah’s Compass,” might be the most local yet. Liam Pennywell teaches at a private school, of which there are a number in and around Baltimore. He loses the job, downsizes from his large apartment on Charles Street to a small one in Towson, across from the mall. He remains connected to his daughters and former wife, who occupy his old house, in a comfortable North Baltimore neighborhood.

“Ladder of Years,” my personal favorite, begins and ends in Roland Park, with a honeymoon and then family vacations in Bethany Beach. The center of the story, with the tears, awareness, and acceptance, takes place in a fictional small town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In the last chapter of “Ladder of Years,” Delia and her husband Sam, after a year apart, are sorting out their history. Sam, with his broken marriage and a failing medical practice, speaks for many men of a certain age:

“The thing of it is,” he said, “you ask yourself enough questions — was it this I did wrong, was it that? — and you get to believing you did it all wrong. Your whole damn life. But now that I’m nearing the end of it, I seem to be going too fast to stop and change. I’m just . . . skidding to the end of it.

“It’s like that old Jackie Gleason show on TV,” Sam said. “The one that used to open with a zoom shot across a harbor toward a skyline. Was it Miami? Manhattan? That long glide across the glassy water: my picture exactly of dying. No brakes! No traction! No time to make a U-turn!”

“Breathing Lessons” is a Pulitzer-Prize novel that follows Maggie and Ira Moran on a one-day car trip from North Baltimore to Pennsylvania. On the last page of “Breathing Lessons,” late in the evening, are two of the most interesting sentences I’ve ever read:

“He had arrived at the interesting part of the game by now, she saw. He had passed that early, superficial stage when any number of moves seemed possible, and now his choices were narrower and he had to show real skill and judgment.”

I suppose you’d have to read the book to understand those sentences.

“Accidental Tourist” has characters who live in Roland Park and Highlandtown, two very different neighborhoods, as well as overseas travel.

“Saint Maybe” is Baltimore through and through. “Saint Maybe” is not among Anne Tyler’s best-known books, but I think it’s one of her best. It begins with a tragedy so shocking and painful that many readers close the book. But “Saint Maybe” gets easier from there. It’s a story of parenthood, responsibility, religion, love, and redemption. A street-wise minister of a storefront church gives the protagonist this advice:

“Lean into the pain.”

Folks in Maryland, and especially in Baltimore, will feel right at home with Anne Tyler’s quirky characters. Insights about families, loss and grieving, sadness and happiness are hiding in plain sight on her pages.

I invite you to add your own comments about Anne Tyler’s books.

— Bernie (John) Hayden

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