Redhead by the Side of the Road

A novel
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INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER
LONGLISTED FOR THE BOOKER PRIZE

“If ever there was a perfect time for a new Anne Tyler novel, it’s now.” —People 
“Tyler's novels are always worth scooping up—but especially this gently amusing soother, right now.” —NPR

From the beloved Anne Tyler, a sparkling new novel about misperception, second chances, and the sometimes elusive power of human connection.

Micah Mortimer is a creature of habit. A self-employed tech expert, superintendent of his Baltimore apartment building, cautious to a fault behind the steering wheel, he seems content leading a steady, circumscribed life. But one day his routines are blown apart when his woman friend (he refuses to call anyone in her late thirties a "girlfriend") tells him she's facing eviction, and a teenager shows up at Micah's door claiming to be his son. These surprises, and the ways they throw Micah's meticulously organized life off-kilter, risk changing him forever. An intimate look into the heart and mind of a man who finds those around him just out of reach, and a funny, joyful, deeply compassionate story about seeing the world through new eyes, Redhead by the Side of the Road is a triumph, filled with Anne Tyler's signature wit and gimlet-eyed observation.

Praise

“Anne Tyler has every gift a great novelist needs: intent observation, empathy and language both direct and surprising. She has unembarrassed goodness as well. In this time of snark, preening, sub-tweeting and the showy torment of characters, we could use more Tyler.” —Amy Bloom, New York Times Book Review

“If ever there was a perfect time for a new Anne Tyler novel, it’s now—and this one doesn’t disappoint . . . Heartwarming and very funny—one of Tyler’s best yet.” People (book of the week)

“Anne Tyler could make even quarantined lives feel expansive and lovely . . . Though we have stripped our daily rituals down to their bare essentials, we remain as big and as loving and as scared and as frustratingly human as we were before the world outside screeched to a halt. Redhead by the Side of the Road is a delicate and moving reminder of this, and proves Tyler’s voice remains as vital as ever.” Vanity Fair
 
“Tyler’s novels are always worth scooping up—but especially this gently amusing soother, right now, when all of our cherished routines have been disrupted.” NPR

“Entrancing . . . Tyler is an American Vermeer whose canvases keep opening whole worlds within compact frames . . . As novelist Marilynne Robinson has observed, 'realism has been so predominant a literary style ‘that it is easy to forget it is a style.’ One of its flawless practitioners is Anne Tyler, whose fiction maps the sea changes of her characters in carefully calibrated, deceptively understated prose . . . Tyler is a keen-eyed but tenderhearted social observer.”—Hamilton Cain, O Magazine
 
“Affecting . . . Tyler has the rare ability to evoke the ordinary with particularity.”The New Yorker

 “There’s always good reason to celebrate a new Anne Tyler novel, and Redhead by the Side of the Road warrants popping open the champagne . . . Who else can make words sparkle with humor and tenderness in quite this way? . . . Hilarious and poignant . . . Shows the author at the top of her form.” Boston Globe

“Anne Tyler, she knows what she’s doing. You feel very taken care of when you’re reading an Anne Tyler book.”—Ann Patchett, Wisconsin Public Radio
 
“Anne Tyler may, in the end, prove to be one of the most influential novelists of her generation . . . Her books are so irresistibly readable that it’s startling to realise what technical marvels they often are.” Daily Telegraph
 
“If, in December, we might sing, ‘We need a little Christmas right this very minute,’ in pandemic panic we might warble that we need or could surely use a little Anne Tyler.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
 
“It moves so quickly and seamlessly . . . Poignant.” Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“Reading Anne Tyler is always pure pleasure, and Redhead by the Side of the Road is the author at her best. This joyful book is a powerful reminder of how much we need human connection.” BookPage (starred)

“Another gem from Anne Tyler . . . This is her best novel in some time . . . Tyler has won so many plaudits over the past 50 odd years that it’s hard to think of new superlatives to add . . .  Tyler’s ability to make you care about her characters is amazing, and never more so than here.” Observer (UK) 

“Tyler’s warmly comedic, quickly read tale, a perfect stress antidote, will delight her fans and provides an excellent ‘first’ for readers new to this master of subtle and sublime brilliance . . . Perfectly modulated, instantly enmeshing, heartrending, funny, and redemptive.” Booklist
 
“A fully realised world full of dry humour . . . Each character is deftly drawn in a few lines.” The Times (UK)
 
“A brilliantly detailed, tender depiction of one man’s regrettable way of living . . . Brings plenty of funny, relatable scenarios.” Irish Times

“Delightful . . . Tyler is a magician . . . You finish her novels feeling closer to life, and closer to other people.”—Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday (UK)
 
“Both moving and comforting in our time of greater crises . . . Tyler’s writing is so expertly nuanced and honest that she carries us into these fictional strangers’ lives as if they really matter.”Sydney Morning Herald
 
“Tyler succeeds by gifting fans with Micah, yet another in her unique and memorable list of characters. Redhead by the Side of the Road is simply a delight . . . Tyler makes her craft look easy again.”The Missourian
 
“Pitch-perfect . . . Tyler is now, as she has long been, at the height of her powers.”Washington City Paper
 
“A work that makes you want to live more attentively . . . [Tyler’s characters] are imagined with a curiosity and compassion seldom found in contemporary prose.”Financial Times
 
“What a joy it is to open a new novel from Anne Tyler . . . The qualities that have served her and her readers so well are still strong in her fiction—telling details, realistic dialogue and interactions, the rare ability to look at ‘ordinary’ people and find rich depths of humanity that enlighten us all. She presents all this with just the right mix of humor and pathos. It’s no wonder her books ring true to so many people.”Greensboro News & Record (North Carolina)
 
“Exquisite . . . Tyler’s wit and humanity seem to be as vigorous as ever.”Anniston Star (Alabama)

“There’s warmth, wisdom, and a wealth of brilliantly caught characters in Anne Tyler’s cheering new novel .” Sunday Times (UK)

“Characteristically tender . . . Suffused with feeling and very moving.”Kirkus Reviews (starred)

Excerpt

Chapter 1
 
You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone. At seven fifteen every morning you see him set out on his run. Along about ten or ten thirty he slaps the magnetic TECH HERMIT sign onto the roof of his Kia. The times he leaves on his calls will vary, but not a day seems to go by without several clients requiring his services. Afternoons he can be spot- ted working around the apartment building; he moonlights as the super. He’ll be sweeping the walk or shaking out the mat or conferring with a plumber. Monday nights, before trash day, he hauls the garbage bins to the alley; Wednesday nights, the recycling bins. At ten p.m. or so the three squinty windows behind the foundation plantings go dark. (His apartment is in the basement. It is probably not very cheery.)
 
 
He’s a tall, bony man in his early forties with not-so-good posture—head lunging slightly forward, shoulders slightly hunched. Jet-black hair, but when he neglects to shave for a day his whiskers have started coming in gray. Blue eyes, heavy eyebrows, hollows in his cheeks. A clamped-looking mouth. Unvarying outfit of jeans and a T-shirt or a sweat- shirt, depending on the season, with a partially-erased- looking brown leather jacket when it’s really cold. Scuffed brown round-toed shoes that seem humble, like a school-boy’s shoes. Even his running shoes are plain old dirty-white sneakers—none of the fluorescent stripes and gel-filled soles and such that most runners favor—and his shorts are knee- length denim cutoffs.
 
He has a girlfriend, but they seem to lead fairly separate lives. You see her heading toward his back door now and then with a sack of takeout; you see them setting forth on a weekend morning in the Kia, minus the TECH HERMIT sign. He doesn’t appear to have male friends. He is cordial to the tenants but no more than that. They call out a greeting when they meet up with him and he nods amiably and raises a hand, often not troubling to speak. Nobody knows if he has family.
 
The apartment building’s in Govans—a small, three- story brick cube east of York Road in north Baltimore, with a lake-trout joint on the right and a used-clothing store on the left. Tiny parking lot out back. Tiny plot of grass in front. An incongruous front porch—just a concrete slab stoop, really—with a splintery wooden porch swing that nobody ever sits in, and a vertical row of doorbells next to the dingy white door.
 
Does he ever stop to consider his life? The meaning of it, the point? Does it trouble him to think that he will probably spend his next thirty or forty years this way? Nobody knows. And it’s almost certain nobody’s ever asked him.
 
 
On a Monday toward the end of October, he was still eating breakfast when his first call came in. Usually his morning went: a run, a shower, then breakfast, and then a little tidy- ing up. He hated it when something interrupted the nor- mal progression. He pulled his phone from his pocket and checked the screen: EMILY PRESCOTT. An old lady; he had dealt with her often enough that her name was in his directory. Old ladies had the easiest problems to fix but the greatest number of fractious questions. They always wanted to know why. “How come this happened?” they would ask. “Last night when I went to bed my computer was just fine and this morning it’s all kerblooey. But I didn’t do a thing to it! I was sound asleep!”
 
“Yeah, well, never mind, now I’ve got it fixed,” he would say.
 
“But why did it need fixing? What made it go wrong?”
 
“That’s not the kind of question you want to ask about a computer.”
 
“Why not?”
 
On the other hand, old ladies were his bread and butter, plus this one lived nearby in Homeland. He pressed Talk and said, “Tech Hermit.”
 
“Mr. Mortimer?”
 
“Yo.”
 
“It’s Emily Prescott; remember me? I have a dire emergency.”
 
“What’s up?”
 
“Why, I can’t seem to get my computer to go anywhere at all! It just completely refuses! Won’t go to any websites! And yet I still have a Wi-Fi signal!”
 
“Did you try rebooting?” he asked.
 
“What’s that?”
 
“Turning it off and then on again, like I showed you?”

Oh, yes. ‘Sending it for a time-out,’ I like to call that.” She gave a flutter of a laugh. “I did try, yes. It didn’t help.”

“Okay,” he said. “How’s about I come by around eleven.”
 
“Eleven o’clock?”
 
“Right.”
 
“But I wanted to get a present for my granddaughter’s birthday on Wednesday, and I need to order it early enough for the free two-day delivery.”
 
He stayed quiet.
 
“Well,” she said. She sighed. “All right: eleven. I’ll be waiting. You remember the address?”
 
“I remember.”
 
He hung up and took another bite of toast.
 
His place was bigger than you might expect, given that it was in the basement. A single long, open space for the living room and the kitchen combined, and then two small, separate bedrooms and a bathroom. The ceiling was a decent height, and the floor was paved with not-too-shabby composition tiles in a streaky ivory color. A beige scatter rug lay in front of the couch. The minimal windows up close to the ceiling didn’t allow much of a view, but he could always tell if the sun was shining—which it was, today—and now that the trees had started to turn he could see a few dry leaves collecting around the roots of the azalea bushes. Later he might take a rake to those.
 
He finished the last of his coffee and then pushed back his chair and stood up and carried his dishes to the sink. He had a system: he set the dishes to soak while he wiped the table and countertop, put away the butter, ran his stick vacuum under his chair in case he’d dropped any crumbs. His actual vacuuming day was Friday, but he liked to keep on top of things betweentimes.
 
Monday was floor-mopping day—the kitchen floor and the bathroom. “Zee dreaded moppink,” he said as he ran hot water into a bucket. He often talked to himself as he worked, using one or another foreign accent. Right now it was Ger- man, or maybe Russian. “Zee moppink of zee floors.” He didn’t bother vacuuming the bathroom first, because there was no need; the floor was still pristine from last week. It was Micah’s personal theory that if you actually noticed the difference you made when you cleaned—the coffee table suddenly shiny, the rug suddenly lint-free—it meant you had waited too long to do it.
 
Micah prided himself on his housekeeping.
 
When he’d finished mopping he emptied his bucket down the sink in the laundry room. He propped his mop against the water heater. Then he went back into the apartment and tackled the living area, folding the afghan on the couch and tossing out a couple of beer cans and slapping the cushions into shape. His furnishings were sparse—just the couch and the coffee table and an ugly brown vinyl recliner chair. Everything had been here when he moved in; all he’d added was a metal utility shelf for his tech magazines and his manuals. Any other reading he did—mostly mysteries and biographies—he got from the free-book place and gave back when he had finished. Otherwise he’d have had to buy more shelving.

By now the kitchen floor had dried, and he returned to wash the breakfast dishes and wipe them and put them away. (Some might leave them to air-dry, but Micah hated the cluttered appearance of dishes sitting out in a draining rack.) Then he put on his glasses—rimless distance glasses for driving—and grabbed the car topper and his carryall and left through the back door.

His back door was at the rear of the building, at the bot- tom of a flight of concrete steps that led up to the parking lot. He paused after he’d climbed the steps to assess the weather: warmer now than when he had taken his run, and the breeze had died. He’d been right not to bother with his jacket. He clamped the TECH HERMIT sign onto his car and then slid in, started the engine, and raised a hand to Ed Allen, who was plodding toward his pickup with his lunchbox.

When Micah was behind the wheel he liked to pretend he was being evaluated by an all-seeing surveillance system. Traffic God, he called it. Traffic God was operated by a fleet of men in shirtsleeves and green visors who frequently commented to one another on the perfection of Micah’s driving. “Notice how he uses his turn signal even when no one’s behind him,” they would say. Micah always, always used his turn signal. He used it in his own parking lot, even. Accelerating, he dutifully pictured an egg beneath his gas pedal; braking, he glided to an almost undetectable stop. And whenever some other driver decided at the last minute that he needed to switch to Micah’s lane, you could count on Micah to slow down and turn his left palm upward in a courtly after-you gesture. “See that?” the guys at Traffic God would say to one another. “Fellow’s manners are impeccable.”

It eased the tedium some, at least.

He turned onto Tenleydale Road and parked alongside the curb. But just as he was reaching for his carryall, his cell phone rang. He pulled it from his pocket and raised his glasses to his forehead so he could check the screen. CASSIA SLADE. That was unusual. Cass was his woman friend (he refused to call anyone in her late thirties a “girlfriend”), but they didn’t usually speak at this hour. She should be at work now, knee-deep in fourth-graders. He punched Talk. “What’s up?” he asked.

“I’m going to be evicted.”

“What?”

“Evicted from my apartment.” She had a low, steady voice that Micah approved of, but right now there was a telltale tightness to it.

“How can you be evicted?” he asked her. “It isn’t even your place.”

“No, but Nan came by this morning without telling me ahead,” she said. Nan was the actual renter. She lived now with her fiancé in a condo down near the harbor, but she had never given up her claim on the apartment, which Micah could understand even if Cass could not. (You don’t want to seal off all your exits.) “She just rang the doorbell, no warning,” Cass said, “so I didn’t have time to hide the cat.”

“Oh. The cat,” Micah said.

“I was hoping he wouldn’t show himself. I was blocking her view as best I could and hoping she wouldn’t want to come inside, but she said, ‘I just need to pick up my— what is that?’ and she was staring past me at Whiskers who was peeking out from the kitchen doorway big as life when ordinarily, you know Whiskers; he can’t abide a stranger. I tried to tell her I hadn’t planned on having a cat. I explained how I’d just found him in the window well out front. But Nan said, ‘You’re missing the point; you know I’m deathly allergic. One whiff of a room where a cat’s merely passed through a month ago,’ she said, ‘one little hair of a cat, left behind on a rug, and I just—oh, Lord, I can already feel my throat closing up!’ And then she backed out onto the landing and waved me off when I tried to follow. ‘Wait!’ I said, but ‘I’ll be in touch,’ she told me, and you know what that means.”

“No, I don’t know any such thing,” Micah said. “So, she’ll call you up tonight and ream you out and you will apologize and that’s that. Except you’ll have to get rid of Whiskers, I guess.”

“I can’t get rid of Whiskers! He’s just finally feeling at home here.”

Micah thought of Cass as basically a no-nonsense woman, so this cat business always baffled him. “Look,” he told her. “You’re way ahead of yourself. All she’s said so far is she will be in touch.”

“And where would I move to?” Cass asked.

“Nobody’s said a word about moving.”

“Not yet,” she told him.

“Well, wait till she does before you start packing, hear?”

“And it’s not so easy to find a place that allows pets,” Cass said, as if he hadn’t spoken. “What if I end up homeless?”

“Cass. There are hundreds of people with pets, living all over Baltimore. You’ll find another place, trust me.”

There was a silence. He could make out the voices of chil- dren at the other end of the line, but they had a faraway sound. She must be out on the playground; it must be recess time.

“Cass?”

“Well, thanks for listening,” she said abruptly. She clicked off.

He stared at the screen a moment before he slid his glasses back down and tucked his phone away.

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Redhead by the Side of the Road

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLERLONGLISTED FOR THE BOOKER PRIZE “If ever there was a perfect time for a new Anne Tyler novel, it’s now.” —People “Tyler's novels are always worth… More