15 February 2012

Anne Tyler: Breathing Lessons (1988)

Ira and Maggie Moran are driving from Baltimore, Maryland, to Deer Lick, Pennsylvania, to the funeral of Max, the husband of Serena, Maggie's longtime friend, but on the way Maggie orders Ira to stop the car as she's getting out. Leaving Ira for good, she is, she'll go back to the truck stop, ask the waitress if there are any rooms nearby and she'll find a new job, but, needless to say, Ira comes back so they can continue the journey to Deer Lick.

We're in the realm of the absurd, although Anne Tyler has a way of making the absurd, or the dysfunctional, seem normal. Serena throws Maggie and Ira out because she caught them in her bedroom, and then on the journey back Maggie (a bad driver) makes a deliberately incorrect sign to a bad driver that his wheel is falling off, but she's penitent when she sees he's old and black, so persuades Ira to go back and tell the man that there's in reality nothing wrong with his car, but he believes her signal and thinks there is, and even convinces Maggie that there is. Consequently, Ira takes the driver (Daniel Otis) to the garage to see his nephew Lamont, but they have to wait because he's out.

And during the wait Maggie learns that Daniel has – like so many of Tyler's characters – walked out of his home, but this time walked out because his wife Duluth is angry with him for something he did in her dream.

During the wait we also learn that Ira's father Sam had interfered with his son's dreams, and this begins one of Tyler's digressions, this time in which the narrator fills in a little backstory about Ira. Ira is from a family in which his (unnamed) mother is a religious obsessive and is never hungry so never bothers with food, meaning that eating has to be organized by his father as his two much older sisters also have considerable communication problems: Dorrie is mentally handicapped and Junie can never leave the house to buy anything (strong shades of Jeremy Pauling in Celestial Navigation). But then the father 'implod[es]', as Ira puts it, he just gives up his business and most things else, so Ira has to ditch his dreams of medical school to take over the family business and become a full-time parent figure. Like the daughter Lindy Anton in The Amateur Marriage, Ira despairs: 'Ah, God, I have been trapped with these people all my life and I am never going to be free'.

People have difficulty communicating in Anne Tyler's world, and third parties may feel they have to intervene, or be persuaded into intervening, in an attempt to avoid disaster or to mend the broken. Little things, seemingly insignificant, can be all-important, can make or break. But then, hell can be other people, in which case no amount of outside help works.

(Careful to use the double inverted commas, I Googled "Anne Tyler" with "dysfunctional families" and came up with 2860 hits. It figures.)

The links below are to Anne Tyler novels I've written posts on:

Anne Tyler: If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
Anne Tyler: The Tin Can Tree (1965)
Anne Tyler: The Clock Winder (1972)
Anne Tyler: Celestial Navigation (1974)
Anne Tyler: Earthly Possessions (1977)
Anne Tyler: Morgan's Passing (1980)
Anne Tyler: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Anne Tyler: Ladder of Years (1995)
Anne Tyler: A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Anne Tyler: Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage (2004)
Anne Tyler: Digging to America (2006)
Anne Tyler: Noah's Compass (2009)
Anne Tyler: The Beginner's Goodbye (2012)
Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

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