by Anne Tyler
Knopf, 288 pp., $25.95
At 60, Liam Pennywell has his share of senior moments—perhaps more than his share. Worse, he’s unable to connect with people on anything but a superficial level. Worse yet, he doesn’t know how disconnected he is.
Noah’s Compass, Anne Tyler’s eighteenth novel, offers Liam the opportunity to fall in love and start over. It’s a modest love, more like that found in the poetry of John Donne than that on the pages of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. How Liam acts on that opportunity is surprising, selfless, and morally correct. His decision to do the right thing (which doesn’t happen to be what he wants to do) is refreshingly out of sync with contemporary life, which is Tyler’s point.
Known for her quirky characters, Tyler writes about middle-class people trying to endure life in Baltimore. With off-the-beaten-path jobs and no particular aspirations to better themselves, they’re perilously close to stereotypes. But Tyler is generally able to bring them alive through attention to details, conversational prose, and her genius for dialogue. Indeed, Tyler’s dialogue tends to resonate like poetry. Multiple meanings jump out from carefully detailed lines. The narrative advances as characters understand (or misunderstand) the implications of what is being said and what is implied. Readers get the point and often smile as the characters bumble through one tragicomic episode after another.
As Noah’s Compass opens, Liam is moving into a smaller apartment after being downsized out of his job. He considers himself ready for the last stage of life. For him, this means sitting alone in his apartment and reading a good book once in a while. He thinks he’s “reached the very end of the line” and feels only “a mild stirring curiosity” about what comes next. He doesn’t have any Hamlet to-be-or-not-to-be moments. If anything, Liam seems more like J. Alfred Prufrock, although he doesn’t worry about eating peaches and rolling his trousers as much as he thinks about correcting people’s grammar. He actually keeps a journal devoted to listing examples of dangling modifiers from the hometown newspaper.
We soon learn that he’s been living a downsized existence for most of his adult life. A philosophy major, he studied for his doctorate but dropped out before completing his dissertation and wound up teaching history to fifth graders at a private school. His first wife was a suicide, and his second wife filed for divorce. He has a flimsy relationship with his three daughters, his grandson, his elderly father, his stepmother, and his sister. Now that his dead-end teaching career has ended, he plans to spend his twilight years in a rocking chair.
But fate (in the form of a robber) knocks him over the head and renders him unconscious. When he awakens in a hospital, he cannot remember what happened to him and gradually realizes that he has lost or repressed large chunks of his life. When he meets 38-year-old Eunice Dunstead—who works as a “rememberer” for Ishmael Cope, an elderly gentleman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s—Liam sees her as the answer to his dilemma.
With Liam’s introverted tendencies, it’s a stretch to imagine him having a passionate affair with Eunice. Their relationship is definitely low-key partly because of the presence of Liam’s teenage daughter, Kitty. Liam’s one intense moment with Eunice ends when Kitty comes into the room without knocking. Deciding to move in with her patsy of a dad, Kitty is anything but guileless. Plucky and conniving, she has more gumption and color than the other characters and is a bright spot in Liam’s drab life.
Eunice, another bright spot, is a misfit. She’s reminiscent of Delia Grinstead, the runaway wife who works as a sort of nanny in Tyler’s earlier novel Ladder of Years. Her frizzy hair, lack of fashion sense, unattractive glasses, and ugly shoes make her dowdy and almost clown-like. But Liam is no prize himself. He resembles Ben Joe Hawkes, the protagonist of Tyler’s first novel, If Morning Ever Comes. Not only is he cut from Hawkes’s dull colorless mold, he’s also experienced similar life-changing events, including the loss of his father, who left the family to marry his administrative assistant.
Liam and Eunice’s affair does not run smoothly—not just because Eunice dresses poorly, doesn’t want to be seen in public with Liam, and speaks in dangling modifiers. No, the two face a much more serious problem when Liam learns Eunice’s secret; ultimately, their complex love story poses an uphill battle. Even though everyone tells Liam that he must first look out for his own happiness regardless of how this affects others, he comes to a different conclusion. Liam’s handling of this moral dilemma offers a brave stance for a contemporary novel. But a story about doing the right thing isn’t necessarily entertaining. That’s especially true if the main character isn’t big enough to handle the soul-searching ramifications of his actions.
And Liam doesn’t seem to be that big. He does the right thing, but we never know how he feels or why he feels that way. His second wife left him because she thought he wasn’t forthcoming. And he isn’t. Unfortunately, Tyler portrays these characters in quick and facile pencil sketches. If Liam has an interior life, we never know about it because Tyler never gets inside his psyche. And while a light touch might work with a character facing a less momentous decision, it seems almost glib here, and it doesn’t fit with the conflict that Liam faces. He isn’t a Prince Hamlet, but he should have been.
Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University.