By Ron Charles
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; C01
By Anne Tyler
Knopf. 277 pp. $25.95
Nobody will raise a Botoxed eyebrow at the claim that men age badly. It's not just our bodies; it's the whining, the self-absorbed fear, the carcinogenic rage. Even the best writers follow the hoary advice to write what they know, and if they live long enough, what they know is old age. Shakespeare closed his last play with Prospero saying, "Every third thought shall be my grave."
Our modern masters have been just as grim. Rabbit Angstrom aged through the second half of the 20th century until John Updike finally gave the old basketball star heart disease and laid him to rest. Updike's final collection of stories, published six months after he died last year, describes people moving about "with the aid of pacemakers and plastic knees, retired and taking up space." Philip Roth has degenerated from the sexual exuberance of "Portnoy's Complaint" to prostate surgery and incontinence in "Exit Ghost." Don DeLillo and Paul Auster have shuffled into this conversation with Old Man novels of their own. It's only a matter of time until Jay McInerney gives us "Bright Lights, Big Hip Replacement." Centenarians are the fastest-growing demographic, so it would not be surprising if novels shifted their focus from preparations for marriage to Preparation H.
But if women experience courtship differently from men, they also experience retirement differently. Which brings us to Anne Tyler's 18th novel, "Noah's Compass," a small story that provides an interesting variation on those dismal tales of aging by Roth & Co. Her protagonist is Liam Pennywell, a 60-year-old divorced man of quiet desperation who has misspent his life "teaching fifth grade in a second-rate private boys' school." After years of silently harboring irritations and offenses (e-mail, cellphones, poor grammar), he's laid off in the novel's opening paragraph. He really doesn't mind. "It wasn't such a good job," Liam thinks. "Things seemed to have taken a downward turn a long, long time ago, and perhaps it was just as well. . . . In fact, this might be a sign. It could be just the nudge he needed to push him on to the next stage."
Those of us who love Anne Tyler know that uncomfortable nudge, that promise of an unknown next stage. In one tragicomic novel after another, we've seen frightened, disoriented people -- just like us -- pushed out of their comfort zones into quirky occupations and difficult family arrangements. With determined enthusiasm, Liam moves into a smaller apartment -- "He had accumulated far too many encumbrances" -- and he tries to embrace his new, refocused life. But the solitude of the first day surprises him, and the problem of filling up all the remaining days yawning before him is daunting. "Most probably, this would be the final dwelling place of his life," Liam thinks. "What reason would he have to move again? No new prospects were likely for him. He had accomplished all the conventional tasks -- grown up, found work, gotten married, had children -- and now he was winding down. This is it, he thought. The very end of the line. . . . He was going to be one of those men who die alone among stacks of yellowed newspapers and the dried-out rinds of sandwiches moldering on plates."
A passage like this, with its subtle, depressive humor, makes you wonder if you haven't accidentally picked up a book by Anita Brookner, who every year for two decades has published an exquisite novel about some dull sad sack like this, wasting away in tidy loneliness. But with Anne Tyler a moment of such cloying self-pity always signals an impending reversal: Liam wakes up in a hospital with an enormous bandage around his head. He was mugged in his new apartment on the first night and beaten unconscious.
That violent act is the trigger for this sensitive, witty story about a man who's forced to realize he's not dead yet -- he's not even out to pasture. Released from the hospital a few days later, Liam finds that he has no memory of the assault, and the loss of that little part of his life sends him on a frantic quest that's unfathomable to the hectoring women in his life: his condescending ex-wife, his three impatient daughters and his dismissive sister. "They said he didn't pay attention. They claimed he was obtuse. They rolled their eyes at each other when he made the most innocent remarks. They called him Mr. Magoo." He knows better, though, and he's determined to reclaim that missing evening. But this is an unusually small novel with a plot so slight that I won't say anything more about what -- or whom -- he finds.
That evocative title, though, is just one lovely element of "Noah's Compass." It stems from a tender moment with his grandson, who's dropped off at his apartment now and then. While working on a Christian coloring book, the boy asks Liam where Noah was going in the ark. "There was nowhere to go," Liam tells the boy. "He was just trying to stay afloat. He was just bobbing up and down, so he didn't need a compass, or a rudder, or a sextant."
"Just trying to stay afloat" -- neither sinking into Roth's existential despair nor ascending into Oprah's blinding self-delight -- that's the difficult, totally unhip theme that Tyler takes clear to the end of this understated novel. In fact, "Noah's Compass" is likely to dissatisfy many of the author's fans, who have come to count on her for more fully resolved tragedies or more satisfying personal insights. Instead, with Liam, she has articulated the melancholy stasis of many older people's lives. "I'll be fine," Liam says near the end, "and he meant it." So, buck up -- we can do this.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.