One reason that Tyler’s works are so fascinating is that they are difficult to classify. Although she was born in Minnesota, specialized in Russian, and married an Iranian, Tyler is considered a southern writer because her works are set in the South—the early ones in North Carolina, where she spent her adolescence and attended college, the later novels in Baltimore, where she has lived since the 1960’s. Tyler does not fit the pattern of many southern writers, however, whose characters, often like the authors themselves, are usually an integral part of rural communities where their families have lived for generations. Although the sense of place is important in Tyler’s novels, her emphasis is on the present. Instead of a rural home that a family has occupied for generations, her locale is more likely to be a house in Baltimore—perhaps rented, perhaps occupied for a generation.
Tyler is certainly in the southern tradition, however, when it comes to her emphasis on the importance of community. For example, in her second novel, The Tin Can Tree, she traces the ways in which the accidental death of one young girl affects not only her closest relatives but also the entire community in which the girl lived. The effect of the tragedy on this large group of interrelated people is confined, however, to the present and to the projected future. There is no conjecture as to patterns established in the past, as is found in so much southern fiction.
The protagonists in many southern novels are interesting precisely because they either refuse to accept community standards—rejecting racism, for example—or because, like the lawyer Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), they represent principles that the community professes but which, in practice, it betrays. Tyler’s protagonists are not members of the establishment who are either rebels or idealists. They tend to be eccentrics who are in flight from their societies for no particular reason other than that they possess boundless energy and unrestrained imaginations.
The energetic protagonist appears in a rather peculiar form in Tyler’s first novel, If Morning Ever Comes. At the beginning of the story, Ben Joe Hawkes is in law school in New York City. Unfortunately, his imagination betrays him: He cannot forget the household of women he has left behind in North Carolina, women he is sure cannot manage without him. Desperately worried, Hawkes leaves law school and goes home.
There, when he finds that the women are all doing very well, he feels quite unnecessary and falls into inertia. He apparently will have the energy to move on with his own life only when he knows that a woman is truly dependent on him. Fortunately, he finds an available sweetheart from his high school days and takes her to New York with him, where one assumes he can now be dependent on her dependence.
By the time Tyler wrote A Slipping-Down Life, she had arrived at the peculiar combination of imagination, rebellion, energy, and even frenzy that marks many of her most interesting characters and often the protagonists in her later novels. Teenager Evie Decker loathes her school, her town, and her dull life. Her rebellion has been shown by withdrawal: She has spent most of her life hiding in her own home, merely dreaming of escape. When she falls in love with a rock musician, however, she suddenly has considerable energy. One can only call it a kind of madness when she carves his name on her forehead, thus becoming a local celebrity. It is clear that Evie intends to follow her musician out of the community and into a more exciting world. If at the end of the story Evie is moving back to her old home instead of heading for Hollywood, it is only because the situation has changed. She has a new baby, and she now desires the security of living in a home she owns. Evidently she now has an outlet for her energy.
Energetic, imaginative characters such as Evie Decker never fit easily into communities that, like most groups of people, value the comfortable virtues of moderation, conformity, and predictability. In every human being, Tyler suggests, there are two conflicting tendencies. On one hand, there is the desire for attachment, which draws Evie first toward her musician and eventually back to her own house, and which pulls the protagonist of The Accidental Tourist toward his childhood home, where his sister and his brothers continue to live in a tight little unit. It brings both the law student of If Morning Ever Comes and the long-lost Caleb of Searching for Caleb (1976) back to the families with whom they never did feel particularly comfortable.
On the other hand, there is also the need for privacy, for solitude, for possessing one’s own soul, that the author recognizes in herself. This need may drive one inward, like the artist recluse in Celestial Navigation, or outward into eccentric actions such as those of the protagonist in Morgan’s Passing, who flees from his demanding, overwhelmingly female family into disguise and a fantasy world he can control.
Because her characters keep veering from one direction to the other as one, then another, of the two needs becomes dominant, and because sometimes, like Evie, they finally return to the places where they began, Tyler’s novels have been called unsatisfyingly circular in plot. In all except perhaps the first two novels, however, Tyler is so skilled in tracing the development of character that although the place may be the same, its inhabitants are clearly very different people. It is this emphasis on character that makes her readers ignore the fact that most of her incidents, though amazing and often amusing, are not earthshaking.
When the protagonist of Breathing Lessons slams her newly repaired car into a Pepsi truck, or even when the protagonist of Morgan’s Passing poses as a doctor and delivers a baby, the real interest lies in the motivations of some characters and the reactions of others. Thus, if Tyler’s later novels are no longer accused of formlessness, it must be emphasized that their unity derives less from plotting than from the creation of compelling characters. Tyler’s greatest achievement is her skill in deferring to those characters. As an author she effaces herself, moving among her characters and reproducing their thoughts and their conversations as they rush headlong toward self-discovery.
Searching for Caleb
First published: 1976
Type of work: Novel
A ninety-three-year-old man determinedly seeks his half brother, who disappeared sixty years before.
Searching for Caleb is unique among Tyler’s novels in that it is a detective story. The first scene in the book takes place on a train from Baltimore to New York City, where Daniel Peck and his granddaughter, Justine Peck, hope to find some news of Daniel’s half brother, Caleb Peck, who has been missing for sixty years. Caleb is finally found, thanks to a detective the family has hired; however, it is typical of Tyler’s circuitous plotting that at the end of the story Caleb once again leaves the Peck family, with whom he had never been comfortable.
The conflict in Searching for Caleb is typical for a Tyler novel. The community that demands conformity is the Peck family. As Duncan Peck, the black sheep of the family, says, the Pecks have dug a moat around themselves so that from their castle they can judge and disapprove of the rest of the world. From the time of their birth, Peck children are indoctrinated with rules of behavior. Pointing out to his cousin Justine Mayhew that she is wearing a hat only because it is a Peck practice, the observant Duncan lists all the family customs, such as wearing English riding boots and refusing to develop cavities, and all the family prejudices—against golf, plastic, and emotion, for example. So extensive a code can, like the moat which Duncan mentions, effectively keep non-Pecks at a distance.
It is Justine who develops most during the novel and who, therefore, should be considered the protagonist. Once she has accepted Duncan’s view of the Pecks and, incidentally, married him, Justine becomes one of Tyler’s energetic heroines, whose principle of life seems to be “When in doubt, change.” Because Duncan, too, is both imaginative and energetic, given to undertakings that begin with great promise and, unfortunately, soon bore him, thus ensuring their failure, it is perhaps as well that Justine can live the life of a gypsy, packing up the suitcases, giving away the cats, and moving on at a moment’s notice.
Justine cannot completely forget her Peck upbringing, however, and near the end of the novel she almost succumbs. For her, Duncan offers to settle down, take a job in Baltimore, and live like the rest of the Pecks. Interestingly, it is not merely her love for him that changes Justine’s original decision. It is also the feedback she gets from the Pecks, who seem less than enthusiastic about the possibility. Evidently, she discovers, the adult Pecks like to have one branch of the family living extravagant, colorful lives, just as the young Peck cousins had been delighted to have one of their number behaving like the outrageous Duncan. Both Caleb’s second disappearance and Justine’s arrangements for her family to travel with a carnival, then, are necessary for the existence of the fixed lives of the rest of the Pecks. In this exploration of her theme, Tyler has illustrated the fact that in order for a community to remain healthy, there must be individuals who refuse to follow its rules. Perhaps, too, if individuals are to know the joys of rebellion, there must be Pecks, providing rules for them to defy.
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
First published: 1982
Type of work: Novel
A dying woman looks back on her marriage and her stormy family life.
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant begins with Pearl Cody Tull’s...
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