The Accidental Tourist

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Middle-aged Macon Leary—the focal character portrayed with striking clarity and completeness in Anne Tyler’s tenth novel in twice as many years—writes a series of “Accidental Tourist” guidebooks for business travelers who would much rather remain ensconced at home. The logo for the books pictures a comfortable armchair that has sprouted a huge pair of angel’s wings. Armchair tourists traditionally sit in the comfort of their living rooms dreaming of travel to realms of gold; accidental tourists, reluctantly forced into travel—as Macon himself is when researching material for his books—want to do everything they can to foster the illusion that they have never left home. So for their benefit, Macon dutifully tracks down Kentucky Fried Chicken and pita bread in Stockholm and restaurants with names such as the Yankee Delight and My American Cousin in London. Yet, while the purchasers of these guides literally hate foreign travel, Macon has, metaphorically, been a more insidious kind of accidental tourist in life, fearful of anything the least bit unexpected or unknown.

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Macon’s siblings, two older brothers and a sister, who still reside in the grandparents’ home where they were reared after their mother was widowed in the war, are also victims of this fear of the unpredictable. Foreign travelers in life, they suffer “geographic dyslexia” if they venture too far afield from the sheltering routine established over the years: groceries arranged in alphabetical order on the cupboard shelves, baked potatoes for dinner every night, and, for entertainment, a card game so esoteric in its rules that only they can play. Even as simple a thing as a trip to the hardware store might result in their getting lost for hours. Ill-prepared for long-term emotional commitment to anyone outside the Leary family, Macon’s older brothers have already divorced and come back to live with their sister when the novel opens; the sister Rose attempts marriage briefly and unsuccessfully with Macon’s publisher, Julian, but returns precipitately to her familiar groove. After Macon’s breakup with his wife and a freak accident that temporarily incapacitates him, he too retreats for a long while to the security of the ancestral home; being partially immobilized in a cast, mummified, seems somehow comforting. The long-established protocol of the brother/sister relationship is relatively safe and undemanding, though it is threatened by the erratic behavior of Edward, the Welsh corgi that Macon brings along.

A year earlier, the dog Edward had responded almost uncontrollably to the death of his young master Ethan, Macon and Sarah’s twelve-year-old son, who had been senselessly murdered during a Burger Bonanza holdup the first time he went away to camp. It is Ethan’s death that leads Macon and Sarah to divorce: Never perfectly suited temperamentally—he ever “methodical and steady,” irksome in the way he habitually corrects imprecise word choice; she, on the other hand, “haphazard, mercurial”—they are divided by their sharply differing responses to this trauma. On the evidence of her heavy personal loss, Sarah begins to see the whole world as evil, falls into despair, and vows never to have another child. Though she was at first attracted to Macon because he was a rock, she is revolted by his coldness, aloofness, and seeming lack of reaction, wondering whether he is emotionally paralyzed, somehow incapable of feeling. She does not realize that he can only endure the anguish by muffling his emotions.

It is not that Macon’s heart is underdeveloped; it is simply that he has always felt the need to overprotect it as a coping mechanism. No armchair metaphysician, Macon has never though deeply about life’s meaning—or, if he has, he has at best concluded that there is little sense to it. He is not, however, untouched...

(The entire section contains 5488 words.)

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