It seems like just a second ago that I received the email congratulating me on a parent-writer fellowship for the Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing’s annual conference. I don’t say this just to brag. Along with the email were some very nice words about my writing. Along with the nice words was a comparison to Anne Tyler. I had never read Anne Tyler. I quickly put a couple of her books on my Amazon wishlist (a receptacle for all sorts of thoughts and things)—after swiftly Googling her and smiling smugly at her Pulitzer. But the reason for the opening sentence here? When I was packing for the conference last week, I slid the one of the two books I had bought into my yellow bowling bag and chided myself for not having read that and the other, by then. Could it have been months?! This year’s sense of time and timing has been especially strange, no thanks to The Pandemic.
After I returned from the conference, where I discovered there would be almost no time for reading (unless you count the audiobooks I listened to while driving to and fro), I picked The Accidental Tourist back up and read. I just wanted to read and not write or think super-hard for a second. In just a couple otherwise summer-activity-filled days, I had finished and looped my husband into watching the movie with me (see below). The Accidental Tourist was the one title of Tyler’s that I recognized, by the way, which might have been from the movie in the 80s. (It also sounds intriguing, doesn’t it?) While it was nominated for the Pulitzer, it is her novel Breathing Lessons that won. (Does that ring a bell for you? Not me.) I will read that one later.
Tyler has had a long and prolifically novel-y career. While three of her twenty books were nominated for Pulitzers, I can’t help but notice that her name is not a household name and, quite frankly, I don’t recognize her books by name or sight. Her books are best-sellers, and yet they don’t strike me as very literary (cough-cough). I’m sure she heard plenty of that after Breathing Lessons. Maybe people are reading them, though. That’s something. She seems to get to keep writing and publishing.
Back to The Accidental Tourist. Published in 1985 (and almost immediately made into that movie we’ll talk about in a minute), it has a great hook: Macon Leary and his wife Sarah have suffered an unfathomable tragedy in the loss of their son and now Sarah is moving out. Macon is, well, eccentric in that he is extremely logical, conventional, and rigid, as are his three siblings. He is also a writer who produces a series of guidebooks that instruct businessmen (and women, I suppose) on how to travel so that it feels they’ve never even left home. Macon himself hates to travel, thus, as he globe-trots to write and update the series, the “accidental tourist.” (Of course there’s more to that, and we see metaphor after metaphor unfold in this book.) At first, he tries to re-organize his life in his own, lonely house, but circumstances land him back with his grown siblings in the old, family home, with his misbehaving dog in tow. In sweeps Muriel, the antithesis of Macon, his family, and Sarah, and boy is she feisty. She also doesn’t take a hint. Ever. Romance, the black moment, humor and healing ensue.
Accidental Tourist is not a difficult read. Tyler is better at many things than me, including clear writing and not gumming up a story with any experimentation, many flashbacks, or shifting POV. This is an eminently straight-forward book with crystal clear writing. It made me wonder, for a long time, how anyone could compare my writing with hers. I did eventually figure it out, I think. She is at times blisteringly insightful, she uses lists of odd things to paint scenes, and she balances on the edge of absurdism with a realism so bright it’s almost glaring. She’s also a character writer. Macon becomes as close to us as our own skin, in this book, and some of the other characters are extremely well-drawn. I think I had issues with how subtle all this was, though, like I couldn’t appreciate any of it until I stood back and gave it some space. I also really found some pacing issues with this book. I wanted to like it. It had some really great stuff, even if it was wrapped up in some pretty ordinary paper, but you hardly know what it is you are reading until you’re done. It comes across as a Hallmark movie of sorts until you start to dissect it, but long before then you’ve gotten whiplash three times as this book plods and then zips at lightspeed back and forth as many times. Thus, the chemistry suffers. (Like, at times you’re going hour by hour, day by day, and then at a crucial moment you skip weeks into the future. We’re missing scenes, is what it is.)
I wouldn’t say don’t read it. I can’t decide myself if I liked it or not. There were things I liked about it and things that I found dampened that enjoyment. One thing I did enjoy was reading a book set in the eighties and actually written in the eighties. I maybe could have used a little more magic, figuratively speaking of course, and a smoother ride. It may be a bit dated, but there are things I wouldn’t have wanted to miss. I am curious as to what I’ll think of Breathing Lessons and I wouldn’t mind someone else telling me what they think of Anne Tyler.
“Macon tightened the grip and felt a pleasant kind of sorrow sweeping through him. Oh, his life had regained all its old perils. He was forced to worry once again about nuclear war and the future of the planet. He often had the same secret, guilty thought that had come to him after Ethan was born: From this time on I can never be completely happy. / Not that he was before, of course” (p237).
Oh, brother. With a cast of Geena Davis, William Hurt, Kathleen Turner and Bill Pullman, I’m fairly confident this movie did well in the 80s. In our bedroom, yesterday, it did not do as well. Actually, if you look it up, the reviews are consistently better than okay. Hmm. My husband and I were bored out of our minds. In a style that modern cinema has left far behind, it had a staged feel, a snail’s pace, and one, piano-tinkled song played through the whole darn thing. They caught most of the story of the book and most of the spirit (though Geena Davis’s character was missing a lot of her essential qualities, I thought), but man was it slow. They did some rearranging and cut too much of what happens in Davis’s space. The result is a lack of chemistry, which actually does come from the book but it’s even more so in the movie. I’m happy for you if you can enjoy this movie, but beyond my husband chuckling at the peccadilloes of the main character (would he be portrayed as having Asperger’s, these days, I wonder), he fell in and out of sleep and I stayed out the $4 rental just so I could give a review.