The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Macon Leary learns to cope with the murder of his twelve-year-old son and separation from his wife in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. With the assistance of Muriel, a flamboyant young dog trainer with whom he becomes romantically involved, Macon assuages his grief, learns to assume control over his life, and becomes more contented than ever before.

As the novel begins, Macon and Sarah are returning early from a vacation on the beach. Neither, it seems, “had the heart for it.” Nor have they had the heart for much else since the murder of their son during a robbery the previous year. During the short car trip, the flaws of their marriage are revealed. Macon refuses to stop driving during a rainstorm, informing Sarah that he has a system for safe driving. Meantime, Sarah longs for a more spontaneous, less systematic man. When she announces that she is leaving him and abandoning their twenty-year marriage, Macon is stunned.

With Sarah gone, Macon is alone and lonely in his home in an upper-class Baltimore neighborhood. His sole companions are his son’s intractable dog, Edward, and Helen, a cat. Macon seldom ventures from his house, where he writes guidebooks for Americans who must travel but long for domestic routines. While others sit in armchairs and dream of travel, “accidental tourists” travel dreaming of home.

Always a methodical man, Macon becomes obsessive when Sarah departs. Preoccupied with conserving energy, he stops using the clothes dryer, although he often has to wear damp clothes. He attaches the popcorn maker—he eschews eggs, fearing food poisoning—to his bedside clock to avoid any unessential steps while preparing breakfast. To eliminate the inconvenience of making the bed, he sleeps in “body bags,” sheets that are sewn together to form a giant envelope.

As his compulsions intensify, he is overwhelmed by his systems; even his pets cannot adapt. Edward refuses to enter the basement, where his dog food awaits him after Macon dumps it in a coal chute, and Helen must use the dryer vent as a cat door to conserve litter. When Helen is inadvertently caught in the vent as the dryer is running, her howling causes Edward—who is too frightened to travel down the stairs on his own and therefore is being carried by Macon—to panic. Macon collides with his new energy-saving, wheeled laundry basket and breaks his leg. The three move into Macon’s grandparents’ home, where his two divorced brothers are already being cared for by Rose, their unmarried sister.

The Leary siblings are mired in routine, spending each evening playing Vaccination, a card game that they designed as children that has grown so convoluted that it proves impossible for outsiders, even spouses, to learn. They eat meticulously prepared and ritually consumed “conservative” baked potatoes nightly. They are aggressively orderly, with allspice stored next to ant poison in Rose’s alphabetized kitchen pantry. Initially comforted by his siblings, Macon is before long appalled by their stasis. He descends into a mind-numbing depression.

Macon’s emotional state as he returns home is mirrored by Edward, whose behavior grows alarmingly erratic and aggressive. He attacks bikers, trees visitors, and panics when family members attempt to leave the house, even biting Macon. Forced to call a trainer when his brother Charles threatens to have the dog destroyed, Macon turns to Muriel, whom he met at the Meow-Bow animal hospital.

Muriel, a thin young woman with a halo of frizzy black hair and an “unluxurious” body, aggressively pursues Macon as she simultaneously tames Edward. Macon, an accidental tourist trapped in his own life, seems unable to resist her. He gradually moves into Muriel’s old row house, where he happily repairs some of the many leaks, holes, and deficiencies. Meanwhile, Muriel’s strength and resiliency act as a palliative to Macon’s grief. In turn, Muriel’s son Alexander benefits from Macon’s attentions. Disabled...

(The entire section is 2,875 words.)