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Noah's Compass

by Anne Tyler

In the sixty first year of his life, Liam Pennywell is made redundant from his post as fifth grade teacher at ST. Dyfrig's private school for boys. He prefers to think of it as being "down-sized", and is at pains to spare the headmaster and the staffroom any embarrassment they might feel on his behalf. In fact, he almost welcomes it as a nudge from fate to spur him towards doing something more accomplished and more satisfying to the soul of a philosophy graduate than teaching small boys ancient history. Even the need to economise interests him, and in no time at all he has moved from his big old-fashioned apartment to a one-bedroom-plus-den in a modern complex of several bland two-storey buildings under tall spindly pines. He throws away piles of old magazines, old letters and shoe boxes full of reference cards, and almost all his old furniture. On removal day he needs only a small U-Haul and the help of two of his friends to move his simple needs and his precious cartons of books to his new flat. By evening he has arranged books, chairs, pictures and kitchen stuff. After a small supper he goes to his own bed gratefully...and wakes up in a hospital ward, having been attacked, they tell him, even as he slept.

But what bothers him more than anything else is his inability to remember this catastrophic event. He has stitches in his head and in his hand; he wakes up attached to a monitor, an IV and a catheter and with his head swathed in bandages, and his eldest daughter frowning at him from the end of his bed. But he is most intrigued to know how he comported himself while the attack was in progress. How had he handled himself? Had he fought bravely? What had he said? Or had he shouted? His exasperation at his absolute amnesia leads him into an adventure almost as surprising as the attempted burglary.

In life's great race, Liam has run well and honestly, and has faced his fences (growing up, getting educated, earning money, getting married, fathering and supporting his children). Even the rather ignominious unsaddling of his divorce and the loss of his job gave him no serious sense of failure. Admittedly he had run in blinkers: he had failed to understand his mother's and his first wife's struggle with the 7lb penalty of childbirth and their subsequent neediness. And his second wife had chafed at his resolute determination to take part in life to his own satisfaction rather than to strive to win. He had never really empathised with his daughters: they now see deference rather than diffidence in his good manners. All they see is a man who drives a Geo Prism and who doesn't have a television set or a computer. They call him Mr Magoo.

In her own honest, sophisticated and elegant way, Anne Tyler gently reproaches her American sisters for having eyes only for the winner, and mistaking a good also-ran for a loser. She applauds Liam's distaste for the roses and champagne and the sweaty triumph of winning, and admires him for fairly and bravely taking part. And, in fact, where would the glamour of winning be without the heroic efforts of the rest of the field?

While talking to his ex-wife, Barbara, with whom he now gets along pretty well (considering), Liam is heard to say"... I haven't exactly covered myself in glory..." She gazed at him kindly.
"Do you remember", he went on, "a show on TV that Dean Martin used to host? ...I can't think now what it was called."
"The Dean Martin Show?" Barbara suggested.
"...he has this running joke about his drinking, remember?... And so one night one of his guests was reminiscing about a party they'd been to and Dean Martin asked 'Did I have a good time?'"
Barbara smiled faintly...
"Did I have a good time," Liam said. "Ha!"
"What's your point, Liam?"
"I might ask you the same question," he told her.
"You might ask what my point is?"
"I might ask if I'd had a good time."
Barbara wrinkled her forehead.
"Oh," Liam says, "never mind."

Those of us who read THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, BREATHING LESSONS, SAINT MAYBE and many another superb novel by Anne Tyler with great pleasure and amusement will be delighted all over again with NOAH'S COMPASS. In her own inimitable style she has done it again.

Paula McMaster


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