SAINT MAYBE By Anne Tyler (Penguin, 337 pages, $27.99)
Anne Tyler writes as though she has been listening through keyholes all of her life. In such earlier acclaimed novels as The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons, she captured with gentle but unerring accuracy not only the texture of events that make up people’s lives, but also the glorious oddity of most human beings as they respond to those events. Tyler’s alchemy is wonderfully at work in her latest novel. Saint Maybe is both a return to a familiar Tyler theme—how people’s lives get away from them—and an exploration of new emotional territory, a meditation on the act of atonement.
Saint Maybe chronicles the Bedloes of Waverly Street in Baltimore, a seemingly well-adjusted couple with three children—only one is still at home—and a firm belief “that every part of their lives was absolutely wonderful.” But the family suddenly starts to unravel. The initial reason for the domestic upheaval is their older son Danny’s hasty marriage to a woman who is almost a stranger—Lucy, who wears “extremely red lipstick that seemed not gaudy, for some reason, but brave,” and who comes equipped with two peculiar children from a mysterious first marriage. Shortly—too shortly—after the Bedloe wedding, she has a third child, ostensibly a Bedloe, whose origins are in question.
The generous, happy Bedloes almost manage, with a little more effort than usual, to absorb those jarring events, except for the actions of Ian, their youngest son, who is not quite a believer in all the domestic harmony. Practically willing chaos to descend, Ian makes a careless remark to his older brother that precipitates not one but two family tragedies. In the process, Ian’s own life, with its normal high-school concerns—how can he get his girlfriend into bed?—and bright but predictable future, disappears forever.
Tyler has created a wonderful character in the tormented Ian, who turns out to be the unlikely saint of the novel’s title. Grave, humorous and sensitive, he is also terminally selfconscious: examining his reflection in a window, he wonders “if there was any event, any at all, so tragic that it could jolt him out of this odious habit of observing his own reaction to it.”
Saint Maybe opens in the late 1960s and carries through to the 1980s. Because of the time frame of the novel, an era of unrepentant narcissism, it might seem preposterous that any red-blooded 17-year-old American boy, however racked by guilt, would give up all claims to his own future. But Tyler has the skills to be convincing.
However, she does dip into broad satire to make her story work, introducing the Church of the Second Chance, a quirky religious sect into which Ian is drawn when the minister convinces him that the only way to get rid of his guilt is to leave school, get a job and look after three young children he is not even sure he is related to. While his friends go to college, deal with the Vietnam dilemma or become hippies, Ian becomes a devoted member of his church and spends more time worrying about the problems in his family than he does about his own life, or lack of it.
Tyler specializes in adult children who cannot leave home and families whose members are so eccentric that they do not even know it. In that and other ways, Saint Maybe is similar to her previous novels. Even the manner in which'Ian is ultimately rescued from his life of atonement is reminiscent of The Accidental Tourist, a story about a travel writer’s romance with a dog walker whose offbeat personality changes his life. In a similar fashion, Ian encounters Rita, the Clutter Counsellor, another unusual woman who hires herself out to go into people’s homes and brutally sift through the detritus of their lives, sorting it into three piles—keep, discard or query.
But it seems churlish to complain about echoes of previous work when the writing offers such gems as Ian being pursued by girls “carrying their bosoms ostentatiously far in front of them like fruit on a tray.” Tyler’s prose is so smooth and seamless that time slips by too quickly, and there is not the chance to savor each situation and character that she creates with so much affection and humor. It is, in fact, a novel with major spiritual dimensions—sin, atonement and redemptive love—but, in the end, it seems lighter than its subject. The cumulative effect of reading it is not unlike the experience that Ian has when he regards the youngest of the three children he has raised, and realizes that what she engenders most in him is “laughter and an ache.”
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