To be honest, I don’t know why this made the Booker long list. It’s a fine book, but unlike Reid’s Such a Fun Age that builds up to a wickedly smart commentary on racism, Redhead By the Side of the Road does not pivot into anything provocative. In a field with as many American novels as there are this year, I just haven’t figured out yet how Tyler’s novel fits in with this cohort. It stays, like its protagonist, safe in the calm safety of routine.
Of course, who couldn’t use a quiet soother of a novel right now? We all could, right? The story centers around a fastidious geeky oddball, Micah Mortimer who is 43 years old, lives alone and rent-free in the basement apartment of a Baltimore building where he works as the super, while also moonlighting as tech-help dude for his own company called Tech Hermit. Get it? Because Micah is a bit of a hermit. The action of the novel happens around Micah. Or more accurately he walks into it, observes it, and relays it to the reader. Like when he goes to his sister’s house for his nephew’s engagement party, or he goes into customers’ homes to repair their computer equipment, or when an ex-girlfriend’s son mysteriously shows up on his doorstep.
This quiet novel gets its momentum from unravelling the plot of why this young man, Brink Adams, has sought Micah out. It also comes from trying to figure out Micah’s deal. He’s a bit of a goofball, going about his scheduled housekeeping chores with a German accent and cooking hamburgers for him and Brink with a French one. But where he can have a witty repartee with a young woman who needs to find the password for a fancy computer inherited from her grandmother, he has zero introspection about his role in his failed relationships with women. You don’t get the sense that this novel bothers itself too much with this lack of introspection though, because this isn’t a thing it unambiguously resolves at the end.
In such tumultuous times as ours though, it is absolutely worthwhile to read quiet and calm fiction. Micah’s dedication to his routines are comforting in a present where all our routines have been upended in traumatic ways. I like to think of this novel as a lovey in book form and as the Booker’s nod to appreciating narratives that offer comfort and ease.
All that said, in this particular literary field that contemplates economic downturns on a national scale, the settling of the American West, and the vagaries of casual racism, this navel gazer seems out of its depth. This is not to say there isn’t room in this field for highly individual and personally centered narratives. Reid and Dashi crush it in this regard. But also that Redhead By the Side of the Road centers on a middle aged white dude pushes my generosity on this to its limit. I mean, there are a lot of non-white, non-cishet, non-male characters who could use a soothing plot to rest in, but that’s probably not where we are in life or in fiction right now.
Depending on what you like, Redhead By the Side of the Road may be a soother or a snoozer. I go back and forth on my thinking on this. There are more than a few heart to hearts that leave the reader feeling warm and fuzzy, and are genuinely lovely to read in their sincerity. The dialog in this novel is entertaining. But I’ve read one too many books about white dudes contemplating themselves, in ways that dont get far enough outside of themselves, to fully appreciate this one.