Fiction: "Noah's Compass," by Anne Tyler
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Sixty may be the new 50 but not for Liam Pennywell of Baltimore.
At 61, the would-be philosopher has been squeezed out of his job teaching fifth-graders at a "second-rate private boys' school." He starts to downsize a life that's already been pared down -- particularly in terms of emotional ties and family fireworks.
In Anne Tyler's new novel, Liam takes his job loss as a sign. "It could be just the nudge he needed to push him on to the next stage -- the final stage, the summing-up stage. The stage where he sat in his rocking chair and reflected on what it all meant, in the end."
As it turns out, the real nudge is a concussive blow to the head on the first night in a smaller, cheaper, apartment. A burglar sets Liam on the path to an understanding of his life that had eluded him, but, at first, he is obsessed with knowing what happened.
He went to bed exhausted and woke up in a hospital, with no memory of the attack.
"You can't imagine how it feels to know you've been through something so catastrophic and yet there's no trace of it in your mind. ... It's as if I've been excluded from my own experience," he tells one of his daughters.
"Noah's Compass," which takes its title from a subtle discussion between Liam and his 4-year-old grandson about Noah and the ark, tracks him to a key but belated revelation about his life. Along the way, we meet a woman Liam befriends, his ex-wife, three daughters from two marriages, his sister, his father and assorted others he typically keeps at arm's (and heart's) length.
Tyler revisits some familiar themes in her 18th novel. As in 2001's "Back When We Were Grownups," she dabbles in youthful expectations, mid-life realities, love, loss and recognizing one's true life.
Alfred A. Knopf ($25.95)
Here, she adds the curse and blessing of memory, upheavals caused by death, divorce and distance, and the hidden cracks in a family's foundation that the builder might not even recognize.
Although Tyler is particularly adept at creating matriarchs of sprawling, zany, complicated clans, she makes her characters come alive in a most efficient way with nuggets of choice details.
Liam's sister, for instance, "could hold a grudge forever. She collected and polished resentments as if it were some sort of hobby."
A former femme fatale is now a faded beauty with "swollen feet stuffed into calico mules," and a young child's head gives off "a heated smell, like fresh-baked bread or warm honey."
Tyler's book-jacket bio reminds us she is 68 and either aging incredibly well or wedded to a favorite photo, not that I blame her.
The point is, only someone who has less road in front of her than behind can address the sort of issues she does. Among them:
Downsizing, summing up, recalling the life you planned and the one you got, how you see yourself and how others see you, the disruptive or high cost of happiness and the prospect of a quiet second or third act before ultimately exiting the stage.
"Noah's Compass" may not be my favorite Tyler book, but there is nothing like a new novel by the Pulitzer Prize winner to turn a wintry weekend into an engrossing getaway with quirky characters, quiet reflection and pages that (like years) fly by.
First Published January 17, 2010 12:00 am