“People could, in fact, be used up -- could use each other up, could be of no further help to each other”
Macon and Sarah Leary are failing. After years of marriage, the death of their son in a hold-up a year back has given them each a fresh view on the world. A fresh view on each other. Macon enjoys himself in moderation: routine and stability give him a way to negotiate life. Sarah (outwardly) feels more. Sarah also wants a divorce.

Nothing typifies Macon Leary better than his job. Macon writes guidebooks for businessmen who have to travel but prefer not to. His series (entitled The Accidental Tourist) guides these unwilling travellers through the pitfalls of unknown experience and details exactly how they can make any trip a home-away-from-home: "Other travellers hoped to discover distinctive local wines; Macon's readers searched for pasteurized and homogenized milk."

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler coverBy comparison, Sarah is – according to Macon – sloppy and disorganised. An English teacher who expresses herself very differently from her husband, she no longer finds amusement in Macon’s strict routines. After their son Ethan’s murder, Macon and Sarah grew apart: there were "months when everything either of them said was wrong."

Grief is a very personal thing: there is no right or wrong way to negotiate it. Shared grief is a more complex situation. Where Sarah needs hope and support, Macon retreats into his routines and his pessimistic view of life. When Sarah admits, “Now that Ethan's dead I sometimes wonder if there's any point to life," Macon responds, “It never seemed to me there was all that much point to begin with.” With such markedly different coping strategies, the Learys are headed for separation.

Ethan gone and Sarah moved out of the family home, Macon’s life of order is plunged into relative chaos. Where previously he had retreated into his work to ward off a sense of danger, left alone he falls into a depression that sees him failing to care for his home or himself. He pops corn in the bedroom and cocoons himself in a set of sewn up bedding. When Sarah told Macon, “there's something so muffled about the way you experience things ... You're encased. You're like something in a capsule. You're a dried up kernel of a man that nothing real penetrates,” she was right but after her departure he drifts into an ever more extreme isolation from the outside world.

Two things help move Macon’s story forwards. Firstly, he breaks his leg and goes to live with his siblings where he is cared for by his sister Rose, who also plays maid to Macon’s brothers, Porter and Charles. Secondly, he encounters Muriel Pritchett. A single mother who does all sorts of jobs to make ends meet, Muriel trains Macon’s dog after it turns nasty on a few people. She is a scrappy younger woman from the other side of Baltimore who brings Macon out of himself (where have we seen a plot like this before?) and dried up Macon Leary finds a surrogate for his wife in Muriel and for Ethan in her son.

Ironically, it is Macon’s apathy following his wife’s departure that allows the plucky Muriel to move in on him. Like Meursault in The Outsider, he is swept along by life. Muriel will eventually change that. She gives him a chance to connect with his grief, to make decisions for himself, and to care about the world again until he finds "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." The question is, in causing this transformation in Macon, has Muriel offered all she has to give – will Macon return to Sarah a refreshed man, or is it his marriage that is used up?

While the themes of The Accidental Tourist are heavy – incoherent violence, isolation, grief – Tyler wrings a great deal of humour from her story too. Macon’s fastidious following of rules he sets himself creates a series of small domestic farces that are as laughable as they are melancholy. Being able to laugh at Macon’s flaws while also recognising them as acutely human, gives the reader a way into the book. Tyler does this brilliantly. However, The Accidental Tourist does not rely solely on its humour to bring readers in. Open any page and one finds not the long, dense passages or experimental grammar of literary fiction, but punchy paragraphs and plenty of dialogue. This is a book for any reader.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of The Accidental Tourist is how brilliantly Tyler inhabits the male psyche. Her portrayal of Macon and the inner workings of his mind shows a deep understanding of a reality of which Tyler does not have first-hand experience. Fundamentally, this is the key skill of any novelist and for an aspiring writer, The Accidental Tourist is a case study in adopting a foreign viewpoint. In fact, Tyler has the edge over many male novelists, who allow their middle-aged male characters to run into fantasy. Macon is burdened with no contrived virility or masculine posturing: he is a man without glamour, without stimulating flaws.

Macon does, however, embody a paradox played out in most of the characters here: the nostalgia for home but also an aversion to its reality. When Macon breaks his leg and goes to stay with his siblings, the reader sees this played out over several different lives. All the Leary children oscillate between marriages and returning to the family home for a different kind of domesticity. The sibling relationship is important and it appears that none of the Learys are able to find a partner who can recreate what they have when they are with their siblings. The relationship between brothers and sisters is underrepresented in fiction given how formative it is. There are no sexual undertones here, no sense that there is anything odd about the Leary troupe. They are simply a group of siblings who have found a way to co-habit and are constantly looking to replicate that in wider relationships. The card game they invented and play regularly but which none of their partners can understand, is symptomatic of this.

The Accidental Tourist is the sort of book aspiring writers should read. It is brilliant without showing off, and full of lessons to be learnt. Like all of Tyler’s fiction (and most fiction worth reading), it is chiefly concerned with how people affect one another, how one person can bring out certain qualities in another. As Macon reflects towards the end of the novel: “[M]aybe it's not just how much you love someone. Maybe what matters is who you are when you're with them.” The order of his life needs the chaos of another’s to bring it balance.

I do have one problem with the novel and that is the ending. With the rest of the story lacking in sentimentality, the finale seems to hurl the reader into a quite different story where ends must be tied up neatly. To that point, however, the book is so well executed that I can forgive it a slightly soggy ending. I’d recommend this to anyone who is interested in life in fiction (as opposed to glamour and escapism).

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