Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

by Anne Tyler

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History in Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

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Anne Tyler published her ninth novel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in 1982. Set in Baltimore, the novel tells the story of Pearl Tull and her children, Cody, Ezra and Jenny, as they attempt to come to terms with a pivotal event, their abandonment by Beck Tull, husband to Pearl and father to the children.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant received excellent reviews on its publication. In the New York Times Book Review, Benjamin DeMott called it "a border crossing" for Tyler, a book which pushes her "deep into truth." Likewise John Updike wrote that Tyler had reached "a new level of power, and gives us a lucid and delightful yet complex and somber improvisation on her favorite theme, family life."

Not all reviewers, however, described Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant so positively. Vivian Gormck in The Village Voice accused Tyler of "arrested development" because of the lack of sexual energy in her novel. She called Tyler's prose "sexually anesthetized." James Wolcott, in a review for Esquire, suggested that the novel "is hobbled from page one on by its rickety plot structure."

Anne Tyler provides for us the way she thinks about Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in an interview with Sarah English: "I think what I was doing was saying, 'Well, all right, I've joked about families long enough; let me tell you what I really believe about them.'" A number of critics write extensively on just what it is that Tyler believes about families, using Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant as their evidence. For example, Anne Hall Petty argues in Understanding Anne Tyler that what Tyler "really believes" can be uncovered by a close examination of the word homesick. The word operates on three levels, according to Petty: homesick, as caused by a longing for home when one is away from home; homesick, as in sick of home, a condition often felt by children eager to be on their own; and homesick, as in sick from home, a psychological or emotional illness caused by the home environment.

Certainly, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant can be read from a number of different critical approaches. For example, it is possible to read the novel as a sociological study of abuse and isolation. Because Pearl is so concerned with keeping up the appearances of a happy family, she hides the fact of Beck's desertion from her children, her neighbors, her family, and even her closest friend Elizabeth Evans argues that the "most poignant example" of Pearl's isolation occurs when she "refuses to allow herself to confide in her old friend Emmaline." Further, the isolation and responsibility of being a single parent cause such strain for Pearl that she often attacks her own children in verbal and physical abuse, as Jenny recalls: "Which of her children had not felt her stinging slap, with the claw-encased pearl in her engagement ring that could bloody a lip at one flick? ... She herself, more than once had been slammed against a wall, been called 'serpent,''cockroach, ''hideous little sniveling guttersnipe.'" Tellingly, just as sociological studies demonstrate, the pattern of abuse repeats itself. When Jenny is a single parent herself, trying to care for her infant daughter Becky while coping with medical school, she finds herself abusing her own daughter: "She slammed Becky's face into her Peter Rabbit dinner plate and gave her a bloody nose. She yanked a handful of hair. All her childhood returned to her...."

Other critics choose to read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant from a psychological perspective. In such a reading, the critic often concentrates on the effect of...

(This entire section contains 1702 words.)

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Beck's absence on each of the children, noting the way that their development and maturity have been damaged by their father's desertion. Joseph B. Wagner goes so far as to suggest that Beck's departure is the "single most powerful factor in the development of the central characters ... The rest of their lives are so molded by that departure that their personalities correspond to psychoanalytic profiles of children who, at similar ages, are also abandoned by their fathers."

In another psychological study, Joseph C. Voelker sees in each of the children the idealization process. Each child longs for and attempts to recreate the ideal family for himself or herself. Cody, for example, longs for a mother who stays at home and visits with other housewives. Later, he buys a farmhouse and imagines himself settling in with his family, something he never does in reality. Ezra idealizes the notion of the family dinner at his business, The Homesick Restaurant. Although someone (usually Pearl) always explodes into anger each time he tries to arrange the perfect family dinner, he nonetheless repeats the scene throughout the book. Rather than starting a family himself, he nurtures strangers by providing them with food. Jenny goes through three marriages trying to find the perfect family. In her third marriage, to a man who has six children and who has been abandoned by his wife, she finds her ideal: the sheer activity of raising so many children protects her from emotional investment in them.

Finally, it is possible to examine Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant from a formal approach. That is, by examining the literary tools Tyler uses to construct her novel, we can begin to understand not only what the novel means but also how it means. One critic who takes a formal approach to the novel is Donna Gerstenberger. In her essay, "Everybody Speaks," she examines the narrative voice Tyler constructs for her novel. Gerstenberger writes that this voice is one of "calm reasonableness," and that she "democratically parcels out reason and unreason so evenly, individual voices in her novels seem to have an equal claim on the reader...." In other words, each of the points of view Tyler uses in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant helps to establish that none of the characters is all good, or all bad, all sane or all insane. This evenness in voice allows us to read all of the characters sympathetically.

Similarly, a formal approach often takes into account images and metaphors. By comparing an abstract idea to something concrete, the writer is able to reveal her meaning subtly. Robert W. Croft argues that food is the central metaphor of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Food represents physical and emotional nurtuRIng. Thus, in the early part of the book, Pearl's refusal to feed her children adequately becomes symbolic of her inability to emotionally nurture the children. After a particularly violent episode of abuse, for example, "Cody had such a loaded feeling in his throat, he never wanted to eat again." Jenny's abuse of her daughter Becky occurs as she tries to feed her.

Tyler often uses food in moments of healing in the book, as well. When Jenny suffers a nervous breakdown, her mother feeds her and helps her to regain her health. Ezra repeatedly tries to heal his family by planning and hosting family dinners at the Homesick Restaurant. By the end of the book, it seems at least possible that the family will be able to complete one dinner together, although even here Tyler leaves us in doubt. The long-absent Beck agrees to come to the dinner, but says, " ... I warn you, I plan to leave before that dessert wine's poured."

Just as food is a paradox in that it represents both moments of violence and of healing, there are other telling paradoxes and contradictions in the story. As Gerstenberger argues, each of the characters shares in the telling of the story of the Tull family, and thus each seems to wield equal authority in the telling. Nonetheless, each character's story is self-contradictory. For example, Cody, the child who feels the most anger at his father's departure, manages to recreate his father's life in his own family. As a successful efficiency engineer, he moves his family from town to town, never letting them put down roots or establish themselves. Ironically, it is Cody who seems to make peace with his father by the end of the book and it is Cody who reintegrates his father back into the family: "Cody held on to his elbow and led him toward the others." Jenny, too, provides us with a model of self-contradiction. Throughout the book, she seems to be the child most affected by Pearl's abuse. When she is at home with her mother after Cody has left for college and Ezra has left for the army, she is uneasy and has nightmares that her mother is a witch. Nonetheless, after she leaves home and her first marriage begins to fail, she returns home. In the place where she was least safe as a child, she feels most safe as an adult: "She loosened; she was safe at last, in the only place where people knew exactly who she was and loved her anyway."

And perhaps this is what Tyler "really believes" about families: that they are themselves paradoxical and self-contradictory. Families are havens as well as prisons, the place of much joy and the place of much sorrow. By the end of the book, we see that each Tull child has created and recreated his or her life and family through the act of memory. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, memory is like nothing so much as one of Ezra's recipes. Each character, through the act of memory, experiments with what to leave in and what to take out, adjusting here and there, like adding salt to stew Beck's arrival in the closing pages of the book provides the missing ingredient that each has struggled to find throughout the book. There are still troubling and contradictory messages on the closing pages. During his mother's funeral, for example, Cody reflects "That her life had been very long indeed, but never full; stunted was more like it." Nevertheless, Cody's final memories of his mother are of her "upright form along the grasses, her hair lit gold, her small hands smoothing her bouquet while the arrow journeyed on." These peaceful, positive memories suggest, at least, that the family story can always be revised.

Source: Diane HenINngfeld, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997.
Henningfeld is a professor of English at Adrian College.

Welty, Tyler, and Traveling Salesmen: The Wandering Hero Unhorsed

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A familiar and appealing figure of the hero in narrative is that of the adventurer who wanders either alone or with male comrades in quest of some goal or in simple harmony with nature. He encounters heroic adventures along the way. The image has come down to us from Odysseus is seen in American fiction in a character such as James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo, and has received wide circulation through western movie heroes such as Shane and the Lone Ranger. This hero is almost always unmarried and hence does not have the encumbrance of a wife or family to handicap his freedom. But even if, like Odysseus, the hero is married and with child, his family rarely enters his mind, and the author largely ignores the day-by-day circumstances of those left at home. Thus the family is seldom a concern of the reader. The story or novel is about the free-roaming hero and his adventures....

With her short stories "The Hitch-Hikers" and "Death of a Traveling Salesman," [Eudora] Welty separates herself from this romantic tradition by focusing on wanderers who learn that such freedom is not necessarily something to relish. In a subsequent work, The Golden Apples, she counters this romantic tradition more sharply. So does the younger author Anne Tyler in her novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Both writers undermine the male fantasy of the free-spirited hero by focusing on what the fantasy ignores. As viewed by these clear-eyed realists, the wandering hero is not single but married, and it is the home world he in effect deserts that the authors take as their focus. Exhibiting similar visions, Welty and Tyler portray the roaming hero—in the guise of a traveling salesman—as irresponsible, vain, and self-centered. They thus unmask and unhorse the romantic quester.

Though distinctly different works, The Golden Apples and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant have striking similarities. Both traveling salesmen in these narratives are conceited, flamboyant men.... Tyler's Beck Tull lacks the exalted status that [Welty's King MacLain] has inherited—in fact, Beck seems to have no family history—and therefore depends chiefly on his charm and good looks to get ahead. Like King, he is, as a young man, handsome, vain, and courtly. "Lean and rangy," he waves his black hair extravagantly; his eyes are such a brilliant blue that they seem unreal; and he woos women with gifts of chocolates and flowers, many compliments, and perfect manners ("he was respectful to a fault and never grabbed at her the way some other men might").

The women these handsome, flamboyant heroes court and marry are themselves similar yet are opposites of their husbands. Both cavaliers surprisingly undertake fast and fierce courtships of women the neighbors consider unlikely candidates for marriage. King woos Snowdie Hudson, who, being an albino, had seemed destined to remain a wallflower and a school teacher all her life. Beck woos Pearl Cody, who, at age 30, is already considered an old maid—and is six years older than Beck. The like-named Snowdie and Pearl are swept off their feet by the dashing King and Beck. Married, Snowdie and Pearl turn to meticulous housekeeping and homemaking. As one character says of Snowdie, "At her house it was like Sunday even in the mornings, every day, in that cleaned up way." Similarly, Pearl concentrates on making each house she and her husband move into "airtight and rustproof and waterproof." At first, it looks as though neither woman will have any children. But finally, Snowdie has twin sons and Pearl has two sons and a daughter.

Meanwhile, their husbands are off selling their wares—King peddles tea and spices; Beck's line is farm and garden equipment. After a few years, King comes home less and less often and then seems to have disappeared for good, leaving his hat on the banks of the Big Black River to hint that he has drowned. In contrast, Beck's departure is sudden. After twenty years of coming home more or less regularly on weekends, he announces one Sunday in 1944 that he doesn't want to stay married any longer. He packs and leaves that very night.

In running away, both men are, like the conventional roaming hero, seeking adventure and glamor but also escape from the responsibilities, confinement, and expectations of home. Despite his law degree, King had become a traveling salesman in the first place so he could come and go as he pleases—could, as he says, "make considerable trips off and only [have] my glimpses of the people back here." He allegedly returns one afternoon a few years after disappearing but beats a hasty retreat when confronted with a vision of home responsibilities in the forms of his young, rambunctious twin sons on roller skates. Beck also returns after two or three years, but rather than announcing himself, he spies on his family from across the street, as King had spied on his through a porch window. When Beck sees his oldest son come out, pick up the evening newspaper and casually flip it in the air, he conveniently concludes that his family is getting along well enough without him, so he too hastily beats a retreat. Beck doesn't want to get close to anyone: "Oh, it's closeness that does you in," he says. Near the end of the novel, Beck tells his son that he had deserted his family because of the "grayness of things; half-right-and-half-wrongness of things. Everything tangled, mingled, not perfect any more. I couldn't take that," he says. "Your mother could, but not me." So Beck—like King and the other wandering heroes—pursues his own whims and leaves his wife to cope with the tangled, imperfect home world.

But whereas King and Beck avoid the gray-ness of home, the authors of these works do not. For in contrast to the male fantasy that focuses on the adventures of the wanderer, The Golden Apples and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant focus on the home world that the hero flees. By thus showing us the consequences of his desertion of his family, Welty and Tyler unhorse the hero. They further deflate his romantic image by revealing him to be an ordinary—not glamorous—man when he does briefly pop up in the narrative.

Throughout most of Tyler's long novel and Welty's complex, interrelated cycle of stories, the runaway husband is absent both from home and from the fictional scene, yet he is never forgotten by those he has left behind. In fact, Beck's and King's desertions of their families are the crucial events in the lives of their wives and children.... Whereas King leaves his family in a small town where he and the family are well known, Beck leaves his family in a Baltimore neighborhood, where he is virtually unknown and goes unmissed. In fact, part of Beck's problem, in contrast to King's, is that Beck fears he is a nobody. But whereas Beck's absence makes no ripple in the community, it causes his wife Pearl as much pain as King's causes Snowdie. Though she has come to see him as a slangy, incompetent, unreliable man, Pearl nonetheless dreams about him, longs for his return, and plans how nice she will act if he does: "He would come with presents for them and she'd be the one to open the door—perfumed, in her Sunday dress, maybe wearing a bit of rouge."

Both wives also feel humiliated by their husbands' desertions. Initially, Snowdie tries to cover King's absence by telling the neighbors that her husband has to be away because of fragile health; he needs "the waters." Similarly, for years Pearl pretends to her children and the neighbors that Beck is only on an extended business trip. Fearing the gossip and charity of the neighbors, both Snowdie and Pearl in their pride keep close counsel with themselves. Pearl shuts all the neighbors out, allows herself no friends Snowdie continues to contribute to community life but maintains a personal distance.

Still another cost of the husbands' wanderlust is financial hardship for their families. The abandoned wives have to find some means to support their families, and this in a time when work opportunities for women are few. Snowdie takes in boarders, and Pearl gets a job as a cashier in a local grocery store. Once her children begin to leave home and their rooms become available, Pearl takes in boarders as well.

Just as Snowdie and Pearl suffer as a consequence of their husbands' wanderlust, so do their children.... Pearl Tull's children, who are 14, 11, and 9 when their father runs away, are all emotionally stunted by his desertion. The middle child Ezra is the stay-at-home and nurturer in this case, while Cody and Jenny feel driven to get away. Beck's desertion affects Cody, the oldest, most noticeably and directly. He ever after wonders if he is to blame for his father's leaving. Addressing his father in one of his interior monologues, as Welty's Ran MacLain does at the beginning of his story, Cody wonders, "Was it something I said? Was it something I did? Was it something I didn't do, that made you go away?" Because he senses that his brother is his mother's favorite, Cody especially desires his father's love and attention. He becomes absorbed with climbing the business ladder of success, to prove himself, unlike his father, a good provider for his family, but also in hopes of winning his father's appreciation and approval, should Beck ever return. Cody even enters his father's profession—he is a traveling salesman, of sorts. But what he sells is efficiency and ideas, and he is expert in his field In leaving home, Cody is not, like Beck, seeking adventure and escape from home responsibilities. Indeed, in his determination to avoid repeating his father's life, he takes his wife and son with him wherever he goes, and he consistently aids his mother financially.

Cody and his siblings suffer doubly from then-father's desertion, first simply from their father's absence and second from the consequences of that absence on their mother. Pearl's behavior toward her children is erratic. After a long day on her feet at the grocery store, she frequently comes home feeling tired, overworked, put upon, lonely, and frustrated by her limited ability to provide. Turning abusive, she takes her frustration and resentment out on her children, attacking them both physically and verbally.

Near the ends of their works, both Eudora Welty and Anne Tyler bring the missing husband back on the scene. Though distinctly different in detail, these endings are strikingly similar in scene, purpose, and effect. The occasion in each case is a funeral—Katie Rainey's funeral in The Golden Apples, at which the whole Morgana community gathers; and Pearl Tull's funeral in Dinner, at which Pearl's whole family gathers. These endings humanize the runaway husbands and further undermine the familiar fantasy of the admirable, free-spirited adventurer....

In the last chapter of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Beck Tull comes back home to attend his wife's funeral. Though he has not seen his family for 35 years, Pearl has made sure he is there at the end. Having him invited to the funeral may be her means of triumphing over him: she causes him, after 35 years of absence, to fulfill at least one of his obligations as husband and father. Or getting him to the funeral may be her revenge on him, for she anticipates that he will expose himself to his children as still the vain, weak man she knew him to be decades before.

And she is right. Now 79-years-old, Beck still wears his hair in "a fan-shaped pompadour, still thick and sharply crimped," and he comes dressed nattily, in a pinstriped but "ill-fitting navy blue suit" with a "gangsterish air." Despite his long desertion of his family, he seems to expect to be welcomed home with open arms and to be made a great to-do over—as though he had been away on some noble quest or is returning a hero of war. When his oldest son Cody recognizes him, Beck responds, Tyler tells us, "with a triumphant nod" and the words,"'Yes, ... it's your father speaking, Cody.'" But in one of the funniest scenes in contemporary literature, Beck's children rob their father of his expected welcome as returning hero. Proving themselves the children of their mother, who had gone on for years pretending her absentee husband was only away on a prolonged business trip, they seem hardly fazed by Beck's presence now. Sweet Ezra politely treats him as just one of the family rather than as honored guest; Cody mockingly pretends that Beck has never been away; and Jenny seems about as interested in her father as she would be in any stranger off the street.

Just as Beck's children have never understood why their father left, neither has the reader known what exactly precipitated his departure. So at the end of the novel, through a conversation between Cody and Beck, Tyler makes sure both Cody and the reader realize that Beck's wandering has in no way been noble, glamorous, or even purposeful. It is in this conversation that Beck refers to not having been able to stand the imperfectability, the grayness, of family life. He indicates that, after one more example of that grayness, he had impulsively left his wife:

"I was sitting over a beer in the kitchen that Sunday evening and all at once, not even knowing I'd do it, I said, 'Pearl, I'm leaving.'"

His actions in the years that followed were just as unplanned, just as reflective of his wishy-washy character. He "[h]ad a few pals, a lady friend from time to time," accepted whatever transfers the company gave him. In his infrequent notes home to his wife, he bragged about the opportunities opening up before him when there were no such opportunities (and Beck was not the man to make opportunities happen). In his old age, he, like King (and like Odysseus), fears that he has ended up on the wrong end of his travels: he sorrowfully anticipates that, now that his wife has died, his current "lady friend" will expect him to marry her at last.

In focusing on the day-to-day lives of those left at home, then, Welty and Tyler have uncovered the realism ignored by male fantasies about wandering adventurers. They expose the emotional pain and hardships faced by those left at home. But this focus on the home reveals something else as well: the strength of the wives left to cope as best they can. Neither Snowdie nor Pearl is faultless, despite their suggestive names, yet both display a competence and a valor that deserve to be sung. As conventional and as faithful as Penelope, both wives wait longingly for 30-odd years for the return of their wandering husbands, yet both survive and succeed quite well without those husbands. Indeed, when her husband does ultimately return to her in his sixties, Snowdie MacLain discovers that this fulfillment of her wish isn't such a blessing after all. "I don't know what to do with him," Miss Snowdie says, and Welty adds:

When her flyaway husband had come home a few years ago, at the age of sixty-odd, and stayed, they said she had never gotten over it—first his running away, then his coming back to her.

Had Pearl Tull been so unfortunate as to get her "flyaway husband" back, no doubt she would have experienced the same rude awakening. Moreover, had a clear-eyed realist—or a female Homer—told the Odysseus story, Penelope would, I suspect, have had the final line in that epic. Having lived, like Snowdie and Pearl, more of her life without her husband than with him, surely she would have been more jolted by than overjoyed by his return. Penelope might say, with Snowdie and Pearl, "I don't know what to do with him."

Source: Carol S. Manning, "Welty, Tyler, and Traveling Salesmen: The Wandering Hero Unhorsed," in The Fiction of Anne Tyler, edited by C. Ralph Stephens, University Press of Mississippi, 1990, pp 110-18.

Family as Fate: The Novels of Anne Tyler

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A careful reading of Tyler's recent work suggests a philosophical coherence and depth residing in aptly chosen domestic details. Like many writers, southern and otherwise, Tyler is obsessed with family, but this obsession does not fall into the familiar pattern of nature versus nurture, of maturity forged out of or against familial influences. Instead, for Tyler the familial becomes the metaphysical. Family is seen in the light of cosmic necessity, as the inevitable precondition of human choice. As Updike perceptively says of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, "genetic comedy ... deepens into the tragedy of closeness, of familial limitations that work upon us like Greek fates and condemn us to lives of surrender and secret fury." Updike is surely right to suggest that fatedness is at the center of Tyler's family fictions.

Yet fate in these novels is not precisely the fate of Greek tragedy. Tyler's fates lie somewhere between the classical Greek fates, or moira, who work our destinies in accordance with some cosmic order—those fates who preside over Sophoclean irony—and the more oppressive fate or heimarmene of the gnostic dualists and their anti-metaphysical descendents the existentialists. In Tyler's fiction, tragedy and comedy, or the mix of them, grow not from the conjunction of a hero's hybris and his fate but from the contest between human caring and nihilism. Again and again we see Tyler's characters, with their rootedness, their entanglements, and their inherited predispositions, come up against the possibility of change Tyler's families live through a repeating pattern of desertion and reunion. Those who desert—or escape—inevitably carry their pasts with them; those who remain are in danger of becoming too passive, of awakening to find themselves in situations not of their making, of becoming dissociated from their own bodies and the physical world around them. In narrative structure, in characterization, and in the emblems through which she describes the human plight, Tyler works an intricate commentary on the nature of fate and on the importance of family to individual understandings of fate and responsibility.

These fundamental concerns come together with the greatest complexity in Tyler's most recent and, I think, her best novel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. The novel opens at the bedside of Pearl Cody Tull, eighty-five years old, blind, and dying in a row house in urban Baltimore. Pearl's memories of the half-century since she married Beck Tull and left her genteel home in Raleigh, N.C., are interwoven with her three children's attempts to understand their father's desertion, their mother's love and anger, and their own responsibility for themselves. Cody, the eldest, has become a travelling man like his father, but a successful and driven efficiency expert rather than a two-bit salesman. Ezra, the middle child, watches faithfully at his mother's bedside, while she reflects that he "hadn't really lived up to his potential." Never having gone to college, Ezra runs a restaurant on St. Paul Street, the Homesick Restaurant, where his greatest pleasure is cooking for others and his continually frustrated hope is for his own family to finish a celebratory meal together. The youngest child, Jenny, has become a pediatrician. She has left her first husband whom she married in order not to be "defenceless," and she has been deserted by her second. Almost by accident she stumbles into a third marriage to a man with a half-dozen children who feel as wounded by their own mother's desertion as Jenny does by Beck Tull's. Pearl Tull reflects that each of her children has an important flaw. In their turn, her children have inherited much of their mother's temperament, and their lives have been formed in response to her abuse. Like her mother, Jenny fears closeness with her own family; like his mother, Cody is prone to violent rages.

All these strands of the Tulls' story are developed through a complex narrative structure. The careful weaving of past, present, and future is an advance on Tyler's earlier novels, and narrative structure here focuses more clearly then before on the present as a moment of crisis between past and future. While the Tulls' story suggests no overarching cosmic pattern or design, no future rewards or punishment, no justice on earth or hereafter, it focuses our attention on moments of transition when the family comes together to celebrate or to mourn a change. For the Tulls, almost any moment can be a moment of crisis, almost any conversation can be revealing. So it is not surprising when Pearl thinks to herself on her deathbed, "You could pluck this single moment out of all time ... and still discover so much about her children."...

The narrative structure of the novel as a whole is designed to bring past and future together more subtly than in any of Tyler's earlier novels, except perhaps Searching for Caleb. Tyler no longer relies on dated chapter headings to peg down chronology as she did in Celestial Navigation and in Morgan's Passing. The third person narration of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant allows her to move easily from one character's thoughts to another's and to move back and forth in time. Thus she avoids the sometimes jolting and mechanical transitions from past to present that characterize her first-person novel Earthly Possessions.

The "Beaches on the Moon" episode of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant best illustrates the new subtlety of Tyler's narrative structure and the thematic coherence it makes possible. The novel begins in 1979, the year of Pearl's death, moves backward in tune to Pearl's childhood, to Beck's desertion in 1944, and to various events of the children's growing up and their adult lives. Each episode brings us close to one of the central characters and shows us the family largely through his or her eyes. "Beaches on the Moon," a chapter at the center of the novel, shows us Ezra's "tragedy" through his mother's recollections. Cody has "stolen" his brother Ezra's fiancee, Ruth Spivey, a "country cook" from the West Virginia hills. Years later (in the early 1970's) Pearl with Ezra's help keeps up her habit of spring cleaning Cody's farmhouse—the place near Baltimore where he had once meant for Ruth to live. The chapter is an intricate weaving together of past and present. It carries us through the narrative of Cody's marriage and Ezra's grief, but more importantly it brings us face to face with Pearl's most direct meditation on the familial fate. This moment is made possible by the pattern of Pearl's recollections; the present of Pearl's sweeping and cleaning becomes the fulcrum between past and future.

The chapter begins several years before Pearl's death, before her encroaching blindness, but the image of Pearl at the beginning of the novel, blind and ill, presides over the view of her here. From present tense narration the chapter shifts to past perfect and then to past tense, as Pearl recalls Ezra's grief. Past and present alternate rapidly as the chapter follows both Pearl's cleaning and her relationship with Cody and Ruth after their marriage. At the very end of the chapter Pearl is reminded of an incident still farther back in the past—back in the pre-World War I days when her school friend Linda Lou eloped with the history teacher. As the chapter returns to its predominant present, Pearl reflects that even Linda Lou's scandalous baby is an old man by now. Like Pearl herself and like Cody's farmhouse, he is greying toward death.

These complex recollections make possible and understandable Pearl's most direct confrontation with what she considers to be the family fate. As Pearl remembers Cody's marriage and his deliberate distance, she confronts the failure of her family. The narrative shifts to the present tense:

Pearl believes now that her family has failed. Neither of her sons is happy, and her daughter can't seem to stay married. There is no one to accept the blame for this but Pearl herself, who raised these children single-handed and did make mistakes, oh, a bushel of mistakes. Still, she sometimes has the feeling that it's simply fate, and not a matter for blame at all. She feels that everything has been assigned, has been preordained; everyone must play his role. Certainly she never intended to foster one of those good son/bad son arrangements, but what can you do when one son is consistently good and the other consistently bad? What can the sons do, even?

Pearl ends these reflections by encountering the force of time directly in the shape of her own aging face:

In the smallest bedroom, a nursery, a little old lady in a hat approaches. It's Pearl, in the speckled mirror above a bureau. She leans closer and traces the lines around her eyes. Her age does not surprise her. She's grown used to it by now. You're old for so much longer than you're young, she thinks. Really it hardly seems fair. Finally Pearl draws comfort from her futile spring cleaning, a present and future testament of her concern. Together, she thinks, she and Ezra will go on cleaning season after season, "the two of them bumping down the driveway, loyal and responsible, together forever."

This view of Pearl, like the other episodes in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, implicitly shows us the importance of the past for shaping the present and the future, and vice versa; we know that even as Pearl herself is aging toward death her children, aging too, are devising ways of going on with their lives....

Virtually all of the major characters in Dinner at the Homesick Restuarant think of themselves as fated, though they may be equally mistaken in passively accepting or in willfully seeking to change their fates. At the first family dinner in Ezra's restaurant, when he announces his partnership in the business, Ezra reflects optimistically on the family gathering: "It's just like fate." (But the dinner is fated as always to end in a family quarrel.) Ezra's passivity is the consequence of his fatalism and of his misjudgment about the nature of his family's fates. Approaching forty at the end of the novel, Ezra thinks to himself, "He had never married, never fathered children, and lost the one girl he had loved out of sheer fatalism, lack of force, a willing assumption of defeat. (Let it be was the theme that ran through his life. He was ruled by a dreamy mood of acceptance that was partly the source of all his happiness and partly his undoing.)" Ezra is the most thorough fatalist in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and in this he is somewhat like Jeremy Pauling in Tyler's earlier novel Celestial Navigation. Interestingly, Ezra is also Pearl Tull's favorite child—mother and son share a certain fatalism, but Pearl lacks Ezra's dreamy acceptance. She is all sharp edges, and while she is passive in important matters of concern to her children, she rebels at the one thing no one can alter, her encroaching blindness.

In contrast to Ezra's dreamy fatalism and Pearl's angry, self-justifying fatalism is Cody's relentless activity. Early in their acquaintance Cody catches Ruth reading her horoscope. "Powerful ally will come to your rescue. Accent today on high finance," Ruth reads with a sneer. "I mean who do they reckon they're dealing with?" Cody determines to become himself Ruth's "powerful ally." Out of sheer desire to have whatever Ezra has, he will make Ruth's horoscope prove true. Yet for all his relentless will, Cody can't make himself accept what he has or who he is. After he is injured in an industrial accident and quarrels with his family, Cody thinks his life is like "some kind of plot where someone decided, long before I was born, I would live out my days surrounded by people who were ... nicer than I am, just naturally nicer without even having to try...." Cody tries with all his energies to have the world for himself; as an efficiency expert he is obsessed with the control of time. Yet even he feels, especially when presented with his family, that his life is plotted in a pattern he did not design. His very relentlessness seems fated, and it makes him less sympathetic than the more passive Ezra.

Jenny, in contrast, is the only character in the novel who comes to deny the family fate, though at one time she too has asked herself, "Was this what it came to—that you never could escape? That certain things were doomed to continue, generation after generation?" In her youth Jenny has tried to protect herself from fate. She marries partly in response to a fortune teller's advice that otherwise she will be "destroyed by love." Approaching middle age, she has learned to "make it through life on a slant," and she reflects ironically that the fortune teller was wrong—love cannot destroy her. She is alternately disengaged and engaged with life, ironically distant and yet taking responsibility for herself and her children. And she refuses to believe family determines future. As she tells one of her step-children, "I don't see the need to blame adjustment, broken homes, bad parents, that sort of thing. We make our own luck, right?"

Jenny could easily be taken to speak for Anne Tyler who has herself said she tends to see life through a "sort of mist of irony." But the novel suggests that even Jenny can't altogether make her own luck. As if to point to the problem clearly, Jenny's daughter repeats and enlarges her mother's flaws. Jenny, who is always eating lettuce and lemon juice, has a daughter who is anorexic. Analogously, Tyler's novel doesn't make its own luck either. In spite of comic moments, things are never resolvable into an unequivocally happy ending.

This interplay of fatalism and will is even more complex in Anne Tyler's novels than I have so far suggested. Fate is never reducible to a series of statements about it; and Tyler's work has the power to engage us seriously because she uses in her own quirky way the oldest emblems of the plight of humans who feel fated in destinies without meaningful cause.

The sense of having been thrown into an alien world may be expressed in nausea, in homesickness, or in what Annette Kolodny calls [in Feminist Criticism, edited by Cheryl L. Brown and Karen Olson] reflexive perception—the sense of finding oneself in a situation, of being dissociated from one's body or the world around one. In Tyler's novels the problem of homesickness is presented concretely through minor characters; her novels are filled with hitchhikers and other waifs. More importantly, nausea, homesickness, and dissociation are the stuff of the lives of Tyler's central characters. These motifs permeate Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, though their expression is less extreme here than in Tyler's earlier novels Celestial Navigation and Earthly Possessions....

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, I believe, goes beyond these earlier novels both in subtlety and humanity. While it retains the philosophical dimension of Tyler's earlier novels, it makes the situations of aloneness and homesickness meaningful through conditions which are, at least superficially, less unusual than those in the two earlier novels. But despite ordinary domestic appearances, the characters' situations in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant are extreme. (By implication, all of our situations are extreme.) All of the Tull family experience dissociation from themselves and their actions. Pearl, for example, says, "Sometimes I stand outside my body and just watch it all, totally separately." All the Tulls, too, live with loneliness and fear. None of this is glossed over, none of it is finally mitigated by the happenings of plot. Beck Tull at last arrives for a family dinner—but only on the occasion of Pearl's funeral.

And yet, Tyler manages to suggest that people do go on attempting to nourish each other. At the funeral dinner Beck looks down the table and exclaims in surprise, "It looks like this is one of those big, jolly, noisy, rambling ... why,families. Cody retorts, "You think we're a family.... You think we're some jolly, situation-comedy family when we're in particles, torn apart, torn all over the place, and our mother was a witch." In many ways Cody is right. Yet the Tulls are a family. The narrator of Tyler's novel never consigns them to total fragmentation and alienation, and the Tulls never quite give up on themselves. As the narrator observes, "In fact, they probably saw more of each other than happy families did. It was almost as if what they couldn't get right, they had to keep returning to."

Tyler never quite becomes either a fatalist or a nihilist, though both attitudes seem possible given the human situation as she sees it. The question of fate—of necessity without meaningful design—as it is developed in Tyler's narrative suggests that Tyler's fictional world is kin to those of gnostic dualism and of twentieth-century existentialism. Yet there is no superior wisdom to which Tyler's characters might awaken, and their choices are not so bleak as they are in the existentialist novel. Forlornness and ironies there are in plenty, but Tyler's irony is not mordant. Instead, it can be tinged with humor, as if to imply that ironic distance is as authentic as and more survivable than despair. As her latest title suggests, fatalism and despair are balanced by attempted human sympathy and nourishment; homesickness may make possible human efforts to connect. Tyler's world is in fact something like Pascal's, but without a god toward whom to make a leap of faith. In the Pensees, Pascal writes, "I am frightened and amazed at finding myself here rather than there; for there is no reason whatever why here rather than there, why now rather than then." For Tyler's characters such fear and amazement are mingled, with fear often overpowering amazement. For the novelist herself, amazement predominates in the "setting-apart situation" she believes is necessary to art. "I am still surprised, to this day," she writes, "to find myself where I am. My life is so streamlined and full of modern conveniences. How did I get here? I have given up hope, by now, of ever losing my sense of distance; in fact, I seem to have come to cherish it."

Tyler's recent novels, particularly Celestial Navigation, Earthly Possessions, and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, are structured by her investigation of what such a "sense of distance" means. She insists on asking directly questions of metaphysical dimension: Why are we here? How do we happen to be who we are? Tyler's characters long for a comprehensible design, a celestial pattern by which or toward which they might navigate. In their gropings toward explanations for their own motives and choices, the question of fate recurs with a singular urgency. It is the measure against which we see Tyler's ordinary families straggle toward a modicum of sympathy and grace.

Source: Mary Ellis Gibson, "Family as Fate: The Novels of Anne Tyler," in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 16, Fall, 1983, pp. 47-58.


Critical Overview