Saturday, January 23, 2010

Noah's Compass

Noah's Compass
by Anne Tyler
Knopf, 2009. 277 pgs. Fiction

Liam Pennywell is, in the common parlance, a loser. Holder of an advanced degree in philosophy, his job path has followed a descending curve so that when he is laid off, at age 60, it is from a position teaching fifth grade at a low-budget private school. While he is considering whether to look for another job or just retire, Liam moves to a less expensive apartment in a not-that-nice Baltimore neighborhood. He goes to bed his first night in the new digs and wakes the next morning in a hospital with no recollection of the intruder who apparently mugged him the night before. Although he is told that memory loss is a common problem after such an attack, he is obsessed with recalling what happened and contrives to meet a young lady whom he discovers has been hired as a sort of "rememberer" for an aging corporate executive.

Eunice cannot restore his lost memories but she does get him in a heap of trouble as he falls for her, a much younger woman, and she for him. Many of Tyler's protagonists are uncertain and undecided, to put it kindly, and Liam may well be the blandest of the bunch, but he does realize towards the end of the story, that his habit of detachment may have cost him. Paraphrasing the old Dean Martin joke, he asks his ex-wife if "he had a good time" in his own life, knowing that he observed it more than he really lived it. Tyler's trademark goofy and endearing secondary characters enliven the book and there is no one better at reflecting our own foibles, nor of revealing the blessing of the light of common day.

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