Books of the region: Anne Tyler, writ large

April 30, 1995|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to The Sun

The unwritten compact is: Anne Tyler writes novel after novel with today's Baltimore as its setting; Baltimore, for its part, leaves her alone. This arrangement has been in effect for a dozen books (her first two were written elsewhere) and 28 years.

Along the way, Ms. Tyler has acquired a national following, won a Pulitzer Prize for "Breathing Lessons," seen "The Accidental Tourist" become a three-star movie and, of equal importance, done her full share alongside her physician husband in the raising of two daughters. Correspondingly, it has bolstered any Baltimorean's pride, knowing that a major American author lives and works inside the city line.

Privacy, yes; reclusiveness, no. To the queries of interviewers, editors and students off at a distance, Ms. Tyler has responded with detail and even self-analysis. So for Baltimoreans (and others) to size up the person and her life thus far, all it needed was for someone to assemble this material, and relate it to the methods and themes of her books.

Robert W. Croft, a Gainesville (Ga.) College faculty member, has now done it, in "Anne Tyler: A Bio-Bibliography" (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. 192 pages. $45). He even lists 18 grad-student theses on Ms. Tyler.

So thorough is Mr. Croft that he records all 259 book reviews by his subject, written for publications including The Sun, and the six books about Ms. Tyler that preceded his. Well aware that her 1995 novel, "Ladder of Years," with its Maryland setting, would render his book in one particular obsolete, Mr. Croft is already back at work, compiling "An Anne Tyler Companion."

The best thing about "Anne Tyler," however, is its critical gaze at novelist and novels. Mr. Croft starts with the Minnesota-born child of Hicksite Quaker idealists who early joined Celo, a land-trust community in the North Carolina mountains. By the time the Tylers move east to Raleigh, the northerner in high school wants to be accepted as a southerner. At Duke University, she majors in Russian but is a student in Reynolds Price's first writing class. Gifted both in observing and in imagining, she never lacks for material; always she reads, notably admiring Eudora Welty; a language person, she can write short or long and even edit her own stuff. Married at 21 to an Iranian 10 years her senior, she combines motherhood with four days a week of sentence-making. In 1967, he takes a job here.

Anne Tyler's forte is individual people; so is many another writer's. The difference is, her people are mostly ordinary. The thrills of fame, power, wealth, status (or depravity)? Look elsewhere. Here are men and women, parents and children, of limited ambition but interesting entanglements. Now they seek escape; now, return. They communicate, often not very well. Passion? Excitement? Yes, but tempered by some daily-life quirk, by the sense of time passing, by a thread of optimism - life is more than worth its hard parts.

Mr. Croft digests the verdicts of reviewers. Variously, they have alleged inattention to sex, indifference to contemporary causes, reluctance to judge. To an extent, he finds that as the novels grow deeper, they also broaden. He and the rest of us watch, fascinated, the continuing output of "a superb writer and an extraordinary human being."

*

"St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore: The Story of a People and Their Home," by Thomas W. Spalding and Kathryn M. Kuranda (Maryland Historical Society. 299 pages. $24.95) is in two parts: the congregation and the building. Both stand out, the former (founded in 1841, the city's seventh Roman Catholic parish) as a succession of high-born, low-born and other elements; the latter as a white-painted Greek Revival delight to the urban eye.

*

"Black Basalt, From Wedgwood and Its Competitors," by Diana Edwards (Wappingers Falls, N. Y.: Antique Collectors Club. 370 pages. $89.50) is a model of connoisseurship - the big, illustrated (24 color plates, 501 in black and white) book that shows when your cup or bowl was made, how and by whom. Earlier ceramics studies by Ms. Edwards, who is the wife of Judge Francis D. Murnaghan, likewise set the standard in their field.

James H. Bready has written for The Sun for many years as a reporter and book editor. He now writes a monthly column on Maryland books.

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