Written by Anne Tyler
I’ve been thinking a lot about Liam Pennywell over the last few days. Wondering how he’s getting along. Whether he and Barbara will be spending any holidays with the kids over the next months …
That’s what Anne Tyler does to me. She introduces me to a character like 60-year-old Liam, then his daughters, and his ex-wife Barbara, and his sister, and Eunice — the much-younger woman he starts seeing — and they all become part of my life. I think Tyler must somehow channel her characters; her masterful use of dialog and description can have me laughing out loud or tearing up in a moment.
Yes, Tyler has done it again, in her 18th novel, “Noah’s Compass” (2010). We meet Liam Pennywell at the end of his last year of teaching fifth grade — he’d been “excessed,” not fired. He wasn’t sorry to leave. “Teaching wasn’t what he’d been trained for. His degree was in philosophy.”
In a burst of enthusiasm about the need to economize and simplify the solo life he was leading, he left his roomy apartment in an established part of town and rented a little one-bedroom across from a shopping center near the Baltimore Beltway. (As Anne Tyler fans know, her characters almost always hail from Baltimore.)
After an exhausting day of moving, instead of awakening in his brand new bedroom, Liam finds himself in a hospital and is informed that an intruder gave him a concussion. His complete lack of memory about the incident plagues him so he consults a neurologist hoping for a breakthrough. The doctor has little to offer but reassurances, yet that visit changes the direction of Liam’s life. In that office he meets Eunice, the assistant to a big-time land developer with dementia — Liam likes to think of her as a “rememberer.”
Through a rather-convoluted plot device, Liam pursues Eunice, and she becomes part of his life. “People like Eunice just never had quite figured out how to get along in the world. They might be perfectly intelligent, but they were subject to speckles and flushes; their purses resembled wastepaper baskets; they stepped on their own skirts.” She has her faults, but she makes him smile.
Since the assault, Liam’s three daughters involve themselves more in his life. True to form, Tyler draws them beautifully. Xanthe, the oldest with “her social-worker clothes, matronly and staid,” is shrill and judgmental towards her father. Louise, in the middle, is married to a fundamentalist Christian and is active in the Book of Life Tabernacle. Kitty, a good-natured 17-year-old, moves in with Liam and comes out with the keen observations and bluntness that only a teen can offer a parent.
In a scene with Liam and Louise’s son, Jonah (as in Jonah and the Whale), we learn where Tyler’s metaphoric book title comes in. The boy is crayoning in his “Bible Tales for Tots” coloring book with Liam when the grandfather explains that besides all the pairs of animals in the arc, Noah carried a sextant and a compass to keep him afloat.
This is a lovely book, not as well received as most of her others, but one that may touch your heart as it did mine.