Right-minded Americans everywhere will probably be finding it difficult to celebrate the Fourth of July as so many of us currently experience shame on a daily basis. Americans are accustomed to being portrayed as loudmouthed and insensitive; given to bragging and communally addicted to junk food. But as George Washington was determined to make clear, we are not liars. It is the blatant lying which hurts the most. Equally painful, despite historically dubious foreign policy, we are used to being the good guy. Not anymore.
Yet on this day of days Americans battling to deal with being embarrassed and ridiculed before the eyes of the world by an infantile administration which endorses a gun culture, sucking up to brutal dictators, reflex insults, name calling and placing children in holding pens, can take pride, yet again, in the better, kinder, more human face of America as represented by the writer Anne Tyler.
Her 22nd novel, Clock Dance, rife with the hurts and joys of living, is far more than merely very good. It will also salvage some national pride and remind readers of the Founding Fathers’ core moral values, which appear strangled at the moment yet continue to underpin American life – only are proving difficult to find beneath the squalid bombast, the sleaze and the bullying.
For readers Anne Tyler is a life force; for writers she is simply the best. Nothing fancy, no Baroque prose, few big words, if any – instead she showcases the ordinary. Her chosen territory is the most difficult because it relies on the emotional responses of characters that are as real and as troubled, as flawed and as normal as ordinary people tend to be. Yes, Tyler is concerned with character, not story. She has spent her career heeding the mentor at her shoulder, Eudora Welty. No better guide.
Tyler grew up the eldest of four born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Quaker parents. Common sense and fair play are natural to her. But she is no goody goody, although she does admit to having read Little Women (1868) a record-breaking 22 times. Even so, there is an essential Americanness in Louisa May Alcott’s slightly annoying classic which takes as its theme family – a theme Tyler has explored beyond brilliantly. So do consider the excessive reading of Alcott as relevant as re-reading Hemingway. Interestingly, she studied Russian literature at Duke University. Nothing narrow about Tyler’s vision.
She is 76, of an age to have developed a similar overview of society to that of her Canadian counterpart Margaret Atwood. But Tyler is not sardonic; her intent is far more subtle than that of Atwood. Take for example a small, if telling incident in her new novel. Willa Drake, the central character, now 61, at the telling of the main narrative, is presented as her earlier, college girl self in a sequence which finds her on an airplane, her first flight, about to introduce her boyfriend to her parents. Too nervous to read, she sits in her seat until she becomes aware of something hard sticking in her ribs. With it comes a whispered warning from the passenger beside her: “This is a gun…and it’s loaded. Move and I shoot. You’re not allowed out of your seat, and neither is he [her boyfriend].
This is taking place on an ordinary domestic flight, in America, in 2017. Later, in the main narrative, time has moved on and Willa, survivor of a road rage incident, is now 61 and receives a phone call from a stranger. She is told that the ex-girlfriend of one of her two sons, has been shot. A young child is involved and needs care. Willa, sets off to help, travelling about 2,000 miles across the US from her home in Arizona, to Tyler-land, Baltimore, Maryland. There is a fascinating irony in that Tyler shares her stomping ground with the acclaimed TV police series, The Wire. She moved there in 1967 and settled for life.
Willa is an ordinary, college-educated American, the daughter of a sweet, bewildered father and a temperamental, minor actor mother. Tension reigned at home when mother was unhappy or took off for a few days. Willa had looked after her younger sister, Elaine. But all that is over, Elaine is distant and Willa, an Everywoman keen to please, must deal with this along with her detached, grown sons and a second marriage to another selfish control freak. Above all, Clock Dance is an extraordinary study of loneliness.
Where does it stand in the Tyler canon? Well, most critics agree that her 11th novel, Breathing Lessons (1988) is her finest book. It is a masterful analysis of a marriage. It won her a Pulitzer Prize. John Updike had singled her out for praise as early as her sixth novel, Searching for Caleb, and remained drawn to her work; he also reviewed Earthly Possessions, Morgan’s Passing, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist. Tyler has more in common with Updike than might be suspected. As for her, she retained a fondness for her fifth novel, Celestial Navigation.
Tyler looks to the nuance; a heartbreaking image, the smallest gesture, a sigh and often that moment when, as Willa habitually demonstrates, you simply bite your tongue.
On this day of days Americans can take pride, if not exactly comfort, in Anne Tyler. Nick Carraway’s father may almost have been referring to her when his son recalls his words stating that: “a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth”. Tyler has more than her fair share of those character-affirming fundamental decencies.
The humour and kindness are present throughout, as are the eccentric mannerisms of which an individual is composed. Her dialogue is authentic, honed by listening carefully. Tyler knows the delicate balance between life and death. Trusting, innocent, uncertain Willa, at 61, is aware of having remained a naïve 11-year-old. Yet she has learned. “She sees herself as a tiny skirted figure like the silhouette on a ladies’ room door, skimming the curve of the earth as it sails through space.” This is the reality of existence as Tyler so accurately describes.
As for America in a wider frame, look no further than the magnificent, if chilling, closing sentences of A Spool of Blue Thread (2015), which eulogises a now abandoned family home: “Focus purely on the scenery, which had changed to open countryside now, leaving behind the blighted row houses, leaving behind the station under its weight of roiling dark clouds, and the empty city streets around it, and the narrower streets farther north with the trees turning inside out in the wind, and the house on Bouton Road where the filmy-skirted ghosts [Halloween decorations used by the family for years] frolicked and danced on the porch with nobody left to watch.”
Anne Tyler may well be writing about the desolation at present undermining America.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times