The world of Tyler's 'Saint Maybe'

Susanna Craine

November 04, 1991|By Susanna Craine

DEAR Max Weiss of the City Paper:

I am writing to ask you where your willing suspension of disbelief is. Irretrievably lost or just misplaced?

I realize this is a question you are not asked very often, so let me put it in context, like any good fiction, by starting at the beginning.

The other morning my friend Linda and I were riding to work when one or the other of us pounced on your review of Anne Tyler's new novel, "Saint Maybe." "Wow," we exclaimed ingenuously together, "she sure trashed it." "Didn't she get it?" queried one or the other of us.

You jumped first on "Anne Tyler's Baltimore" -- not as though there is no such place, but as though the version duly constituted for "Saint Maybe" has no. . . what? . . . legitimacy, I guess. You dismiss it as "solely a figment of her self-deluded imagination," and think that this somehow gets to the heart of the matter.

But what is a fiction after all, we asked, if not just that: a figment, an imaginative fiat, a small, round microcosm of unreality connected or disconnected by its own rules and meant to shed light on the various fictions that are our lives? Anne Tyler, we agreed, has always been very good at the kind of elucidation that the best worlds of mere assertion can bring. Her characters seem to be "eccentrics" or "weirdos," as you call them, because you measure them by unsuitable standards. But their coherence or lack of it can only be fairly judged against what you seem to be railing about: the standards their author sets for them in the world she has tailored as theirs.

Every one of Tyler's creatures in "Saint Maybe" fits that world's standards and adds up. You say that David Letterman would indict them as "a bunch of dorks" while Tyler croons, "Awww, aren't they cute?" Wrong, Max, that is not what she says, and it doesn't matter what bizarro Letterman says. Maybe you should stick to the late show if you can't fine-tune your standards to RTC take in Tyler's messages about the meaning of the rise and fall and rise of the Bedloe family in "Saint Maybe."

Ian Bedloe, whom you dismiss as the "feckless hero," for instance, is neither a "plucky eccentric" nor a "perennial loser." By the time the novel comes to its lilting close and he feels and induces us to feel a "kind of echo effect -- a memory just beyond his reach," he has evolved into a triumphantly well-rounded character, having passed through the valley of death and into a radiant maturity.

Along the way, he has been tempted by every loathsome seduction of modern guilt. Blaming himself for his brother's suicide, he has had to hack out a way to expiate and live. The Church of the Second Chance, which offers him a framework for what he must accomplish, is not just another "too-cute name" but an apt description of what we all must seek every day that we trudge through our own difficult Baltimores. Through it Ian musters what faith he can, rejects some of Second Chance's Reverend Emmett's rules and bolsters his endurance with meaning beyond an individual's limited scope.

To a greater or lesser degree, Max, that is what most of the characters do here -- rise up from the terrible test of ordinary life and exhibit the "resilient spirit that rescues us from moments of despair," as another reviewer observed about Tyler's previous novel, "Breathing Lessons." Her funny names like Second Chance and Bow Wow Meow are a way of making complex concepts homely and story-like; also a way of creating palpable boundaries for her fictional world. It is an exemplary fictional world if you will just give up your illusions, Max, about what is "too" this or "too" that.

On one of our daily commutes somewhere near Calvert and Pratt streets, Linda and I heard Norman Mailer talking on the radio about the critics of his new novel, "Harlot's Ghost," which is about the CIA. He said, "My imaginative CIA is more real than their lived CIA." When you, Max, say that Tyler's novels should carry a disclaimer, "Artist's rendition only," it makes me know that her fiction is more real than your criticism. Perhaps you mean you just don't like "Saint Maybe." That I could understand if you would explain it in terms other than that Anne Tyler is hopelessly out of touch, "like an alien viewing society through a glass spaceship."

On the contrary, she is very much in touch with a way of creating verisimilitude, and a hopeful world of ordinary people, some of whom loft above the ordinary by their generous and faithful observances of daily life.

In closing, Max, maybe that is my wish for you: that you follow Coleridge's maxim and suspend your disbelief about what kind of world "Saint Maybe" is long enough to enter and be touched by it yourself.

Susanna Craine is a Baltimore writer.

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