A revealing view of mental illness.
Author Anne Tyler has had a storied career (pun intended). A multiple finalist and one-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (Breathing Lessons; 1989), Tyler has written many novels to great acclaim. A literary heavyweight, her work has won her the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence. One of Ms Tyler’s novels was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize (A Spool of Blue Thread; 2015).
Given this background, Redhead by the Side of the Road presents the reader with a mystery. It appears utterly banal, a cosy slice of life set in contemporary America with little literary pretence. Micah Mortimer is a middle-aged man who runs a marginally-successful IT business offering help desk services to select clients. He breaks up with his partner. Will they get back together? A standard plot, but hardly Pulitzer-winning stuff.
The book’s charms begin to become apparent once the reader becomes immersed. It becomes obvious that Micah has personality traits which have prevented him from living his life to the fullest. Micah finds it difficult to relate to the world around him and, what looks on the surface to be a dreary tale of Gen-X dissatisfaction, quickly becomes a story of a man facing his own inabilities and making a conscious choice to rise above them.
Micah’s partner leaves him after approaching him for assistance which he didn’t give. He appears callous or simply thick, but after his life is upturned by the sudden appearance of a teenage boy claiming to be his son, Micah is forced to realise that his method of dealing with these problems is not the norm. It is not that Micah lacks empathy, but rather that he lacks the observational skills that tell him when empathy is necessary. Realising this is a huge step forward for Micah.
The book is, at heart, a character study of Micah, who clearly has a form of Aspergers or is on the autism scale. It would be easy to dismiss this book as yet another in the Rosie Project autistic romance genre, but that would be selling the book short. Tyler is experienced and knowledgeable in the field of psychiatry, and the subtlety with which Micah’s personality is revealed to the reader and to himself gives the reader the sense that, while good things have happened, this is not a golden sunset. Micah may continue to struggle and even fall down in the future, but the important thing is that he is now self-aware, is conscious of himself, and can now make informed choices. This is Redhead by the Side of the Road’s great triumph: rather than reducing autism to a caricature, Tyler deals with it frankly in a manner that seems real, without apology, and gives it a nobility of its own.
Reviewed by DC White
Distributed by: Penguin Books Australia
Released: April 2020