My 2017 reading schedule has seen me go back and forth not only between genres of fiction, but between old books and new. I’ve made a sizable dent in the stack of second-hand novels I brought home from Texas this summer, but I have also committed myself to reading those books that have suffered on my shelves for years. Some of them I always intended to read but just never got around to, others I had completely abandoned, forgetting why I wanted to read them in the first place. The great Anne Tyler and her inimitable body of work most certainly occupy the former category. She’s an author that I was very much predisposed to liking; whose work I seemed to know without having ever read. I knew I’d like her but I never got around to sitting down and losing myself in Tyler’s Baltimore.
I discovered Anne Tyler in the fall semester of 2013, during a meeting with my creative writing professor regarding my dissertation. I couldn’t decide what story I wanted to write for my “extended creative project” or “ECP” as it was known. At the time I was struggling with this idea I had about a high school basketball star in Western Wisconsin, and taking my influences from a variety of American male authors such as John Updike and Raymond Carver. I was interested in the mundane- American suburbia- but also drawn every now and then to the sensational, to plots involving earth-shattering revelations and high emotions. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to write, and only followed a vague idea of where I wanted to go, trying to advance a plot that wasn’t quite moving all on its own. I had a meeting with a professor who was acting as the supervisor for my dissertation and tried to convey some of the difficulties I was having. It was then that he gave me a list of books I ought to read. The first items on the list were Breathing Lessons and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, both by Anne Tyler. I was intrigued by the titles alone.
My professor said that it sounded like I was trying to emulate these writers, and that if I read from them myself, I might get the help I needed to write the kinds of stories I wanted to write. I never did read them; I was far too wayward, too impatient, too anxious to simply settle down on anything- but I remembered Anne Tyler especially. I ended up buying her magnum opus- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant– for my mother. I knew she would like it even though I hadn’t read a single sentence of her work before. My mom and I share a lot of books and have a lot of the same tastes. She loves American fiction and always has. This book was supposedly the kind that I wanted to write. So I bought it for my mom and Anne Tyler became her favorite author of all time. No one else comes close, except maybe Steinbeck. Over the years she’s collected every single Anne Tyler novel and read them all. It seemed these books had the same life expectancy around my mom as Double-Stuf Oreos do around me. She tore through them, and it’s hard to discuss it and not come up with metaphors relating to thirst and hunger. I was going to say she just as quickly consumed and disposed of them as a relapsed alcoholic does the contents of a hotel minibar. I always intended to join her, but I never got around to it. However, after months of intensifying nagging on her part, I finally decided that the time was right and picked up this book whose title I had for so long been entranced by.
Like most of her novels, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is set in Tyler’s native Baltimore. In fact, I’d argue that she stands as the greatest and most iconic author of the city and perhaps the state of Maryland as a whole. Yes, I know that the Baltimore Ravens are named after that one Edgar Allen Poe poem, but honestly you’d be hard pressed to find a fitting name for a football team in an Anne Tyler book. The Baltimore Single Mothers? The fact that Tyler is so strongly associated with the city of Baltimore was a real draw for me. Maryland has always seemed like such a strange place. It’s too southern to be considered a part of the North, and yet too north to be considered truly Southern. It occupies this narrow stretch of no-man’s land between two vastly different cultural and geographic regions, and it has the strangest shape of any country subdivision you’ve ever seen. However there’s little physical description of all this in the novel. What lines are devoted to the setting are sparse and fleeting. Tyler’s Baltimore is a world of sun-splashed sidewalks and brick row houses, streets either full of children at play or no one at all, strip malls, street cats and an endless maze of roads full of parked cars, with only occasional references to the smog of the more industrial parts of town. It’s thoroughly urban, and in some ways that atmosphere comes across in the sheer lack of description of the setting. Tyler is more interested in people and their relationships. Very careful and deep attention is given to the minutiae of domestic life. Tyler’s philosophy is that through the examination of small, mundane things, larger truths are revealed.
In some ways, her obsession with the small aspects of family life reminds me of Raymond Carver, but in truth she reads a lot more like John Updike or William Maxwell. Her vibrant characterizations are much like that of Liane Moriarty, though the pace and themes of her work could not be more different. To my mind, the crowning achievement of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant– and the main aspect that I take away from the novel- is how rich and interesting the characters are. They are all so kooky and eccentric, and represent universal truths of the psychology of family life- such as sibling rivalries, the passing down of traits to descendants, and the nature of pride. The novel is about three siblings: Cody, Ezra and Jenny, and details their life after their father abandons their mother Pearl, leaving her to raise them herself. Each of the siblings fail to detach themselves from the event of their father’s leaving, allowing it to determine the rest of their lives. As the novel spans many years, we see how each of them are shaped by this one event, and how none of them- including Pearl- fully get over it.
I was especially drawn to the oldest child Cody, because in some ways he reminded me of myself during my childhood. During my school days I often caused a lot of trouble and mayhem. I was guilty of not only being a hyperactive little shit, but also being mean to other kids on a few occasions. I remember teasing a girl when I was nine years old, and the class teacher assistant came over and said icily “He doesn’t care about people’s feelings. He just doesn’t care”. I felt a little sympathy for the character of Cody, who everyone assumes is just cold-hearted and without empathy, because it reminded me of those days. I felt like I could relate on some level to his desire to cause more trouble, to accept his “devil” status to spite those that had given it to him.
To conclude, this is a wonderful book, and my reading of it was long overdue. Perhaps the most fascinating element of Tyler’s characterization is the way each sibling remembers the same childhood events differently, and how these competing memories clash throughout the book in a series of poetic repetitions of family dinners always going unfinished. I urge you all to give Anne Tyler a read. She’s one of America’s most perceptive and intelligent writers. And there’s no better place to start than the novel she herself considers her best: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant!