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Noah's Compass

Anne Tyler’s quirky humor, compassion, and skill all shine in this, her 18th novel.

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Anne Tyler writes the opposite of alpha heroes. Not only do they not save the world, they can barely face another day in it. (Omega sounds too impressive, beta too fishy, delta too military, and gamma reminds me of The Hulk. I believe I shall christen them epsilon heroes.)

“I am not especially unhappy, but I don’t see any particular reason to go on living,” Liam Pennywell thinks in Noah’s Compass, Tyler’s 18th novel. Fans of the Pulitzer Prize winner will instantly recognize Liam as another of Tyler’s deeply repressed, inarticulate characters, and will want to embrace this “puddle of a man.” Others will just want to wallop him upside the head. Never fear. Someone does that for you.

Liam, 60, has been fired from his job as a fifth-grade teacher at a second-rate private school. (He was supposed to be a philosopher. It didn’t work out.) Getting into the spirit of downsizing, he pares down his possessions until they fit in U-Haul’s “second-smallest truck” and moves to a beige-carpeted starter apartment, complete with a built-in tie rack. From this vantage point, he plans to sit in a chair and sum up his life. At this point, a reader could be forgiven for thinking that might take all of 20 minutes.

Liam goes to sleep in his new apartment and wakes up in the hospital with a bandaged head and hand and no memory of the night before.
Everyone from his doctor to his ex-wife and three disaffected daughters views this as a blessing. Liam was attacked by an intruder, who came in through his unlocked patio doors. Who would want total recall of such an event? “Shoot,” his one friend, Bundy, tells him about his missing night, “that happens to me just about every weekend. No big deal about that.”

For Liam, not knowing is a bigger trauma than the head wound. “A hole, it felt like. A hole in his mind, full of empty blue rushing air.” Even more than who attacked him, Liam wants to know how he “comported” himself. At a neurologist’s office, Liam sees a professional “rememberer,” hired by an aging millionaire to serve as his external hard drive. He becomes fixated, seeing the frumpy Eunice as a talisman who will somehow supply the key that gives him back his memory.

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