Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Accidental Tourist (1985)

On the heels of a successful movie adaptation (four Academy® Award™ nominations! winner of an Oscar©!!), and with Anne Tyler coming fully into her own, in the late '80s it was common to see this labeled as her best novel. To be fair, it's pretty good—certainly among her best. As usual, she finds a family-based situation on which to alight that has potential for bottomless poignance. In this case, Macon and Sarah Leary, middle-aged couple, are attempting to cope with the death of their only son, a 12-year-old who perished in an act of random violence, during a holdup at a fast-food joint. Macon makes his living writing guidebooks for people who don't like to travel; the title of the novel is the name of the series of books he authors. In comparison to the rest of his family, for the most part a bizarre bunch of OCD-candidate fussbudgets, Macon is a reasonably normal person, but the rest of his family is not a good standard. Sarah, fed up to the teeth with him and with them and still grieving a year after their son's death, leaves Macon, who almost immediately loses his bearings entirely, plunging into ever more desperate attempts to maintain control in his life, which Tyler shows in very funny yet harrowing scenes: washing his clothes in the tub at the same time he showers, for example, or, as another efficiency measure, hooking up his coffeemaker and popcorn popper to the clock radio in his bedroom for a breakfast of coffee and popcorn in bed every morning. Into this morass enters a young woman in her 20s, Muriel Pritchett, a single mother who takes to Macon for some reason, in spite of the age difference and, even more difficult to believe, in spite of the personality, er, situation. She and Macon are virtual polar opposites. Where he seeks control in everything, she implicitly rejects that such a concept as control even exists. The attraction is neither easy to believe, nor terribly original, but once past that the action proceeds memorably. Much as with the movie Casablanca, there is a sense here (confirmed in later interviews) that the author knows little better than any of the rest of us how it will all resolve, particularly once Sarah returns wanting a reconciliation. As for the movie based on this book, it's decent enough, but produces one slightly unsettling side effect: it is almost impossible to imagine Macon Leary and Muriel Pritchett in one's mind as any people other than William Hurt and Geena Davis. I'm willing to call that a triumph of casting, even if (or maybe because) that was the case from the moment I heard of their appearances, long before I ever saw the movie.

In case it's not at the library.

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