Monday, May 27, 2013

A Successful Experiment: Reflections on Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist

It was a Saturday afternoon in April, chilly, and two of my friends from the George Mason MFA program were visiting here in Columbus. Naturally, after showing them the ridiculous corn field sculpture in Dublin (see picture), we stopped in at the Village Bookshop, a bookstore in an old church with overstock books at cheap prices. We hatched a plan: the four of us (my husband joined in) drew names and we each had to select and purchase a book for that person which he/she would then be obligated to read. We agreed not to choose a book that would waste the person’s time (hence Jimmy Buffet’s short story collection Tales from Margaritaville remained on the shelf), and after more than five years of reading one another’s writing, we knew each other’s taste enough to know what would be worthwhile.

I lucked out.  The friend who drew my name chose for me Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist.

I had not read Anne Tyler before, but I soon found myself drawn into the world of Macon Leary, the “accidental tourist,” whose life is falling apart in the wake of his son’s death and his wife’s subsequent request for divorce. Emotionally reserved, Macon copes with his new bachelorhood by devising ridiculous routines (like sloshing his clothes in the bathtub while he showers to launder them) and caring for his late son’s dog, whose emotional upset expresses itself in poor doggy behavior. Enter (against Macon’s will) Muriel, a dog trainer and a divorcee herself who loves to talk and whose life is as chaotic and full as Macon’s is regimented and detached. The conflict of whether these opposites will attract escalates as Macon becomes increasingly embroiled in having to choose his old lifestyle over a nascent new one, his lovely ex-wife Sarah over the charming mess of Muriel.

If you haven’t read Accidental Tourist, be forewarned that it is the type of book that will make you linger long over your lunchtime reading, or stay up too late turning pages. Not that it’s overly suspenseful, although you can’t help being invested in the characters and wanting to know what will happen next—it’s more that the world Tyler draws is both entertaining and real in the way that the greatest comedies of manners are. The characters are quirky, but they never veer into caricatures, just as the many emotions of the book—love, frustration, grief—are expertly managed so that the book is never maudlin or broody or despairing.

Successful comedies of manners are not easy to come by today.  They belong more to the moralistic and “mannered” societies of the 18th and 19th century. But to imagine that we do not have “manners” in contemporary society is a delusion that Accidental Tourist clearly dispels, as does Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I blogged about previously. In fact, the two books share many similarities—a close, third-person point of view of a male protagonist; a tone that at once invites us to laugh at the protagonist’s limitations even as it respects that same character’s struggles; and an overall effect of perfectly managing the narrative so that it avoids unattractive extremes of satire or sentimentality. And both are books that manage, miraculously, to be that perfect blend of being fun to read while still offering substance that stays with the reader after the last page is turned.

Our afternoon at the Village Bookshop had a happy ending for all of us.  One of my writer friends went home with a collection of short stories by Peter Ho Davies, while the other ended up with Joseph Heller’s Picture This.  I happened to draw my husband’s name, and while I considered making him read Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood because I myself would like to read it and have someone to discuss it with, I ultimately selected a book I thought might be more to his taste: the Booker Prize-winning True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey, about an Australian outlaw. And I think I can safely say we all went home with a sense of thankfulness at having friends who know our literary selves!

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