It might happen at church, or across the room at a party. You see someone interesting-looking, with a weary face marked with lines, by his presence part of the crowd but distinctly set apart by an aura of other-worldly passivity. His countenance, his being declare a never-stated despair. And you wonder: What was he like when he was young? What terrible things might have happened to him? How did he get the way he is?
No doubt Ian Bedloe, the chief protagonist in Anne Tyler's 12th novel, "Saint Maybe," would elicit such a reaction. At 17, we are told, he was the youngest of three children in a happy, middle-class family living in what appears to be the Govans neighborhood of North Baltimore. He is "large-boned and handsome and easygoing, quick to make friends, fond of a good time. He had the Bedloe golden-brown hair, golden skin, and sleepy-looking brown eyes." He had a big brother, Danny, whom he adored, and a girlfriend who was "the prettiest girl in the junior class" at Poe High School. College, marriage and a comfortable life lay ahead.
Yet in only two decades one would see in him confusion, bitterness and a sense that he has wasted his life, due primarily to the chore of raising his dead brother's three children. He has never married. A niece whom he took into his home as an infant looks at Ian at age 40, and observes sorrowfully that her once attractive, ebullient uncle now has "long, limp tendrils drooping over his collar, dull brown mixed with strands of gray, and the worn lines fanning out from his collar."
Anne Tyler has written about life's serendipities, its often-cruel capriciousness, many times before, but never as tellingly as in "Saint Maybe," her 12th novel (and first since winning the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for "Breathing Lessons").
It's a quiet book, less antic and containing more heartbreak than most of her earlier novels. Her characteristic wit and appreciation for the eccentric are present throughout, but at heart "Saint Maybe" has an air of bittersweet melancholia. We see Ian change in many ways in 23 years, and even as we admire him for plugging along selflessly we grieve as he wraps himself up in guilt and anger. Ultimately, though, he becomes one of Ms. Tyler's most endearing characters.
The role of the family in one's life has been a major theme in Ms. Tyler's books since her first novel, "If Morning Ever Comes," about a young man returning home from college, was published in 1964. As Ms. Tyler noted in a revealing essay, "Still Writing:"
"It seems to me that since I've had children, I've grown richer and deeper. They may have slowed down my writing for a while, but when I did write, I had more of a self to speak from. After all, who else in the world do you have to love, no matter what? Who else can you absolutely not give up on? My life seems more intricate. Also, more dangerous."
The last phrase particularly captures Ms. Tyler's sense of family: what can give great strength and sustenance also can hurt the most. Children die ("Accidental Tourist"); spouses desert their families ("Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant"); brothers become estranged for a half-century ("Searching for Caleb").
In "Breathing Lessons," Maggie and Ira Moran's marriage endures for 28 years, but there seems to be little joy or connection between the two. In several books, adult children stay on in the house long after they should have made a life of their own. The ties that bond can be stretched almost beyond comprehension, then at the most unexpected moment pull the principals back together again -- often with extreme reluctance from those involved. Yet in a troubled and scary world, the family remains the safest harbor.
In "Saint Maybe," Ian becomes, at 19, the unlikely center of an unlikely family. Danny dies in an auto crash soon after an angry confrontation with his brother; in a moment of spite, Ian had told his brother that his new wife was cheating on him.
Months later, his wife, Lucy -- depressed and aimless since Danny's death -- commits suicide, leaving two children, Agatha and Thomas, from her first marriage, and infant Daphne from her marriage with Danny. Ian's parents are nearing retirement and never really took to Lucy, whom they considered low-class, in the first place, so they are reluctant to raise three more children. Ian -- has begun college, but feels guilt over Danny's death and concern for the children. One night, he stumbles into a storefront church on York Road, the Church of the Second Chance.
The Church of the Second Chance teaches that no matter what the sin, God will forgive even the worst transgression. But it won't be easy, Ian is told by the minister, Reverend Emmett: "You can't just say, 'I'm sorry, God.' Why, anyone could do that much! You have to offer reparation -- concrete, practical reparation, according to the rules of our church."