There are books I admire but don’t read again and books I reread compulsively. The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler falls into the latter category. It was only a recent seventh rereading that finally revealed why. It had taken me that long to hold the sum of this extraordinary novel in my head – to realize that this was a great and subtle piece of writing where every character, every phrase was a carefully chosen part of a magnificent and subtle whole. It is also, even after multiple readings, extremely funny.
Essentially this is a love story but one which offers a surprising view of what love may be. Anne Tyler’s characters inhabit her native Baltimore but in a parallel universe – they are people on the margins, often eccentric, people who are just trying to get by, seemingly untouched by external social and political events. The central character is Macon Leary who has suffered a catastrophic loss: his 12-year-old son has been killed in a random shooting. His marriage collapses and he’s left alone in the marital home. But Macon is revealed as a man who lives in perpetual apprehension of the outside world – his son’s death has simply confirmed his worst suspicions that the world is messy, uncontrolled and meaningless, and that goes for its inhabitants as well.
The early chapters describe his increasingly frenzied attempts to get his household ‘under control’: sheet bags instead of pyjamas, skate boards under linen baskets to speed up laundry procedures. He struggles on with his work, which is writing travel guides of an unusual nature. The mission of the Accidental Tourist guides could be summed up as ‘making travelling businessmen feel they haven’t left home’ – a beautiful metaphor for Macon’s own terror of anywhere unfamiliar. ‘I am happy to say that it is now possible to buy Kentucky Fried Chicken in Stockholm’ is the highest praise he can offer that city. Other travel hints include: ‘Always bring
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