As Liam Pennywell explains to his 4-year-old grandson, Noah didn’t need a rudder or a compass for his ark. He just needed to stay afloat until the waters receded. Liam sees himself as having lived in the same sort of helpless pickle, just bobbing around on the floodwaters of fortune. We, readers of Noah’s Compass, Anne Tyler’s 18th novel, wish fervently that Liam had taken more charge of his life, even if poor steering or bad compass readings had crashed him onto a reef. Instead, he has drifted, rarely complaining (aloud), but nonetheless dragging his dependents along with him until they engineer their escapes.
Liam is 60 when the novel opens and is just moving into a dreary new apartment. He has been “downsized” out of his teaching job at a second-rate private school, his position taken by a young man with no seniority. Although conscious that he should be annoyed, maybe even outraged, Liam does not feel particularly distressed—he rarely does. Liam has been married twice, first to an ethereal woman who meant everything to him, but who committed suicide following a long postpartum depression after the birth of their daughter, Xanthe. Liam struggled to work and raise the toddler, an effort soon relieved when he met good-natured, matter-of-fact Barbara, with whom he had two more daughters, Louise (mother of his grandson, young Jonah), and Kitty (a problematic teenager). When the girls were still young, Barbara gave up on Liam, divorced him, and married a man who effectively became the father of all three girls. That husband is now dead. As Liam says of himself, “All along, it seemed, he had experienced only the most glancing relationship with his own life. He had dodged the tough issues, avoided the conflicts, gracefully skirted adventure.”
The night Liam moves into his new apartment, he goes to sleep, only to awaken in a hospital bed with a nasty head wound and injuries to his hand caused by a nighttime intruder. After recovering from his immediate injuries, Liam’s persistent problem is his inability to remember anything about the assault. He is desperate to retrieve this missing piece of himself, however unpleasant. By happenstance, he meets a frumpy woman in her 30s named Eunice, who acts as “rememberer” for a rich man, unobtrusively supplying him with the names of colleagues, acquaintances, receptionists, and so forth. Convinced she can help him, he pursues her, and much of the novel concerns this relationship.
Tyler’s novels often involve quirky, marginal people who live amid masses of tatty junk, but she overcomes our initial disinterest or even distaste with dead-on accurate, enormously appealing details. Many of her meticulous observations are comic, but they can also reveal her characters to have a bedrock unsentimental honesty about life that transfigures them. For simply surviving, sometimes in the most improbable circumstances, they come to embody decency, loving-kindness and an awkward kind of gracefulness.
The problem with Noah’s Compass is not, strictly speaking, Liam himself—Tyler has written of similarly flabby main figures—but the absence of any character with the attractive oddball verve that usually acts as contrast. Eunice, although ultimately interesting for the duplicitous game she turns out to be playing, is nearly as dumpy and shy as Liam. This may be realistic, but it is not dramatically compelling. Tyler’s excellent secondary characters—Liam’s daughters, grandson Jonah, ex-wife Barbara—can’t carry the story on their own. I fear that in this novel Tyler loses the balance she usually maintains so perfectly, and her story slides into a dreary tale of less-than-engaging people.
Her writing, however, very nearly rescues Noah’s Compass. The medical profession should take her hospital scenes as teaching moments. It’s not just the aides with the cute teddy bear smocks or the nurse with the smiley-face one, it’s the doctor’s questions when Liam can’t possibly make sense, or the tray of food that’s impossible to eat. “Inch by inch he hauled himself up and reached for the juice. It was sealed with a tight foil lid that turned out to be beyond him. Pulling it completely off took more strength than he could muster just now, and the harder he tried the more mess he made, because he had to squeeze the cup with his bandaged hand and the plastic kept swashing inward and spilling.” Told he can’t go home on his own, Liam thinks, “Maybe you needed to be older to realize that it wasn’t always easy to find someone who would stick around for forty-eight hours at a stretch.” The women in Liam’s life do cobble together an arrangement, but even though it creates problems for everyone, it still doesn’t actually meet all the hospital criteria, not that anyone cares.
The easy proliferation of exact detail and sly commentary confirms Tyler’s mastery. “Liam’s unit was on the ground floor. Unfortunately, it had a shared entrance—a heavy brown steel door, opening into a dank-smelling cinderblock foyer with his own door to the left and a flight of steep concrete steps directly ahead. Second-floor units cost less to rent, but Liam would have found it depressing to climb those stairs every day.” Confronted with Kitty’s cell phone, “Liam spent a second trying to figure out how such a tiny object could make contact with both his ear and his mouth at the same time. He gave up, finally, and pressed it to his ear.” However, when Liam tells Eunice, “Sometimes I think my life is just . . . drying up and hardening, like one of those mouse carcasses you find beneath a radiator,” the statement’s accuracy points directly to the central problem of the novel. Tyler has not rehydrated Liam into a person we care for. He is stoic, but not attractive. His often sour insights show only how pathetic he and the world around him really are.