Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Accidental Tourist
by Anne Tyler
Penguin, 355 pages

Some years ago, following a rather bad break-up, I stumbled upon The Accidental Tourist in the dollar bin of a used bookstore. I don't know why I picked it up - I had never read Anne Tyler before and had never seen the movie. But it might have had something to do with these lines from the start of Chapter Two:  "After his wife left him, Macon had thought the house would seem larger," writes Tyler. "Instead he felt more crowded. The windows shrank. The ceilings lowered. There was something insistent about the furniture, as if it were pressing in on him."

The story of Macon Leary, the abandoned husband, naturally spoke to me - I too felt I had been abandoned - but before long Tyler's whimiscal plot, charming cast of characters and unintrusive prose meant as much to be as the question of whether Macon Leary would return to the woman who had left him or move forward with the eccentric Muriel Pritchitt.

Re-reading the book years later, I am struck most by the book's inherent simplicity. Essentially a love triangle, the book has no real plot and succeeds largely on the strength of its characters. Macon Leary is a great construct. Stubborn and set in his ways, he is the titular character, a man who never takes control of his own life: he might as well be on a tour bus driven by someone else (his wife, his publisher, the gunman who takes his son). Naturally, the story of the novel is how Macon finally moves into the driver's seat, thanks largely to the influence of Muriel, a scrappy and slightly dotty survivor in the wilds of life. Tyler takes equal care in drawing the supporting players - even Edward the dog has his own personality - which allows one to forgive the lack of any real plot. We like the characters and so we're happy to move through the days with them - appropriately, we're travelers along for the ride.

There's nothing flowery in Tyler's prose - she's not out to impress anyone - but that doesn't mean there aren't smart insights into the complex dynamics of relationships, especially those whose cracks have begun to show. Marriage, in Tyler's world, is more then just whether or not two people are living together; it continues to exist through separation. Only Julian, Macon's erstwhile publisher, seems unaffected by his first marriage, which "amicably ended". Everyone else continues to carry the wounds of their relationships; only a few have let those wounds turn into scars. "Well you have to carry on," Macon Leary says after his wife leaves him, but it takes him the entire book to understand just what "carrying on" actually means. Some of the other characters never do.

But in the end The Accidental Tourist is still a comedy and Tyler can't resist giving it a comedy's ending. She's in good company - Shakespeare did it too - and the book's finale comes up far too fast. It simply ends and one has the feeling that there was another chapter which Tyler forgot to write. But this is a small quibble: nearly forty years after it was written, The Accidental Tourist remains a smart and funny book whose story of human dynamics continues to have appeal.

And no, you don't need to have just endured a break-up to enjoy the book. But it probably helps; like all good romantic comedies, it leaves one with a feeling of hope. 

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