By Anne Tyler
Knopf, $25.95, 288 pages
The famous floating craft built by Noah to bear his family and pairs of the world’s animals through the Great Flood was built for a single purpose: to simply stay afloat until the world’s floodwaters subsided. The lives of many men and women are somewhat similar to Noah’s voyage: an existence of drifting with the currents of circumstance, with no purpose or direction, wondering from time to time if there is more to life than merely pursuing enough diversions to make it worth living. If only there were a reliable compass to consult.
In Anne Tyler’s latest novel, “Noah’s Compass,” 60-year-old Liam Pennywell finds himself at just such a juncture of wondering about the meaning of it all. At one point he realizes, “I am not especially unhappy, but I don’t see any particular reason to go on living.” Having been trained in philosophy, he has spent most of his life teaching fifth-grade boys at a Catholic school in Baltimore. Abruptly discharged in a cost-cutting move, Liam struggles with the fact that he lives in a lonely world in which his shelves of books are more intimate parts of his life than his only friend (from the old school), his brisk and efficient ex-wife, and his three grown daughters from two marriages: a trio of demanding, sharp-tongued fussbudgets he sees only irregularly.
Liam is himself a far-from-lovable figure, with his sophomoric, too-clever-by-half answers to the simplest questions, his self-pity, and a prideful sense that many of the people and experiences he has encountered in his life are beneath him. He wonders how he could have ended up so alone. For Liam believes he was a man destined for a contemplative life of respect and accomplishment, but instead - what? “Why, that last job had used about ten percent of his brain!”
After being released from his teaching job, Liam realizes that he is at a time in his life when his spacious apartment is an encumbrance. He gets rid of some of his belongings and moves into a smaller apartment, with a faint sense of smugness about how humble he is. In a stunning plot turn, Liam goes to bed the first night in his new place and awakens the next day in the local hospital with a broken skull, a bite-wound on his hand, and no memory of what happened the night before. He learns only that, as best as can be determined, he was assaulted by a thief who entered the apartment through a carelessly unlocked door, struggled with Liam, and got away - but didn’t steal anything.
Liam becomes consumed with the need to recover his memory of those missing hours: “A hole, it felt like. A hole in his mind, full of empty blue rushing air.” As he explains to a doctor, “A part of my life has been stolen from me. I don’t care if it was unpleasant; I need to know what it was. I want it back. I’d give anything to get it back! I wish I had someone like the … rememberer out in your waiting room.”
By “rememberer,” Liam refers to a woman he had spotted immediately before his appointment: a plain, thirtysomething woman who accompanies an elderly, locally famous industrialist and periodically reminds him of appointments and the names of friends and acquaintances. Liam decides he needs a rememberer - that rememberer - who can help him recover his memory of the night he was attacked; and in the days that follow his appointment he begins basically stalking the industrialist and his aid. Within a few days they meet, and to Liam’s surprise she is attracted to him and he to her.
The woman’s name is Eunice Dunstead, she lives at home with her ailing parents, and she has something in common with Liam - loneliness - and something else: a desolate sense of life, though their perspectives on that condition differ. “Sometimes I think my life is just … drying up and hardening, like one of those mouse carcasses you find beneath a radiator,” confides Liam. To which Eunice declares, “I don’t see myself as a mouse carcass … but more like one of those buds that haven’t opened. I’m hanging here on the bush all closed up.” And hoping that there is a compass of some sort to provide her with orientation within the mystery of life.
Eunice and Liam clumsily attempt to broaden and deepen their relationship and appreciation for each other, despite their considerable difference in age. Their efforts are hampered by the fact that Liam’s youngest daughter has decided to move into the small apartment with her dad; so the ardent couple, their relationship unconsummated, meet at odd hours in little coffee shops and out-of-the-way restaurants to simply talk. Liam’s daughters, his ex-wife, and his best friend view the presence of Eunice in Liam’s life with everything from mild exasperation to tittery amusement. All Liam’s concern about recovering his missing patch of memory is forgotten.
For some reason, Eunice never invites Liam to meet her parents, and for good reason: she has a secret life she has hidden from him, and which Liam learns about by accident - to his shock. With his relationship with Eunice fatally damaged, Liam is forced back upon his remaining memories, to examine the way he has treated everyone dear in his life, and a remarkable thing happens. He takes the first awkward steps toward reconciling with those members of his family he has neglected or otherwise wronged. “All this dwelling on the past was Eunice’s fault,” Liam concludes. “If not for her - or the loss of her - he wouldn’t be thinking about such things. In the most unforeseen way, Eunice really had turned out to be his rememberer.”
In the end, Liam has drawn no closer to possessing a compass for life, and he muses that “in the end we die like all the other animals and we’re buried in the ground and after a few more years we might as well not have existed.” The mouse carcass is eventually buried and forgotten.
But somehow this realization comforts him; he realizes that what memories he retains of life and love, of quiet and joy and rest, are enough for him amid a senseless, aimless world. Not for Liam the comforts of the faith that informs life of his middle daughter, Louise, an obnoxious Bible-quoting twit. (Is there any other kind of Christian in modern literature?) Louise’s young son Jonah inadvertently prompts Liam to a moment of illumination when he asks him to explain the significance of Noah’s directionless journey over the surging deep, to which Liam replies, “Noah didn’t need to figure out directions, because the whole world was underwater and so it made no difference.”
With 18 novels to her credit, Ms. Tyler is a past master of writer’s craft. Her novels have received fulsome praise from the likes of John Updike and other top-flight writers. In “Noah’s Compass” she has fashioned an autumnal work that grapples with some of the weightiest questions anyone will ever face, draws complex, readily identifiable characters, and presents their tale with a clear, seemingly effortless prose style and a sure-handed execution of the storyteller’s art.
James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House Books).