Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)

I would still like to know how Anne Tyler does what she does. I suppose I could read closer and study harder, but invariably I find myself swept up in her characters and their stories, ordinary Baltimore citizens making their way in a heartless world. Which, I know, probably makes it sound trite, and perhaps it is, yet therein lays the wonder for me. Because they really do work remarkably well. Part of it is the language, the kind of constant ruminating stream of focus on the small details that tell, that create great giant rivers of human experience, a strategy that Raymond Carver employed particularly well. Tyler also has a remarkable ear for dialogue—not so much for the way people talk as for what they choose to talk about. The novel details the legacy and family of Pearl Tull, who married under the cloud of being an old maid for her mid-century times, bore three children, found herself abandoned by her vacuous younger husband, and set herself to single-handedly raising the children on her own, rarely asking help from anyone. It's a sad and touching tale, marred only slightly by self-pity as the opening scenes quickly map out the terrain from her point of view, as she is lying on her deathbed. Her passing, which occurs at the end of the first chapter, is heartbreakingly beautiful, one of the single most moving paragraphs I have encountered anywhere. But as events and revelations unfold, skipping across and back and forward through time and point of view, it becomes apparent that Pearl is actually severely damaged, an abusive monster even, taking out all her disappointment on anyone around her, with the children obviously most convenient. But that turn to the reality is done artfully, breathtakingly so, with only occasional and fleeting glimpses disclosed of the worst of her behavior. Isolated and set up this way, they are only more harrowing and always surprising, partly because of Tyler's shrewd introduction of her to us in the first place. The children—Cody, Ezra (proprietor of the titular restaurant), and Jenny—are each likeable and unlikeable in varying portions, and each damaged in their own rights. It is hard to contemplate some of the things that happen here, not least because all of these characters, even Pearl, came to the places they occupy in life through natural processes of experience and good will and best intentions. If they fuck up and do unforgivable harm to one another Tyler never loses sight of the parts of them that anyone could connect with. Really, it's a kind of miracle—this might be Tyler's single best novel.

In case it's not at the library.

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