You Can't Go Home Again

The Accidental Tourist By Anne Tyler 355 pages, $16.95

IT'S NOT SURPRISING that the characters in Anne Tyler's latest family portrait, The Accidental Tourist, suffer from "geographic dyslexia." Like her usual cast of eccentric homebodies, members of the Leary family tend to become disoriented anytime they stray too far from the familiar hearth. Regardless of how tempting the escape, something--guilt, injury, an Oedipal chord, the boys eating too much glop for breakfast--inevitably draws them back to the comfort and complacency of home, sweet home.

When Sarah, Macon Leary's wife of twenty years, runs out of the house leaving her wedding rings in the soapdish, Macon's first instinct is to return to the childhood nest, the domestic asylum where his three sisters, all doomed for spinsterhood, still live. The tragedy which initiates their estrangement--the freak murder of the Leary's twelve year-old son, Ethan, that occurs while he is away at camp--lays bare the stasis their marriage has reached. When Sarah openly seeks comfort in her grief, Macon's only solace is the reminder that he, with his usual caution, had opposed the camping adventure in the first place. "The trouble with the Leary men," as their mother is used to fondly confiding to former daughter-in-laws, is that they're not really men at all, but grown-up children paralyzed by a big, strange outside world.

Still, the family hope is Macon, a Princeton graduate and best-selling author of a travel guide series called "The Acccidental Tourist." Tyler's wonderful irony describes how, in spite of the successful career he has built living out of hotels, Macon hates travel, especially to anywhere foreign. A true American tourist, he distrusts the exotic. Hungarian paprika makes him sneeze; his taste consistently tends toward American which, to his xenophobic mind, means the assurance of safety, the familiar: home.

This theme of domestic neurosis is itself safe, familiar ground for Tyler, whose bestselling Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant portrays with warm, humorous insight, the mixed blessings of family life and its traditional values. The characters in her latest novel bear a strong resemblance to those of the earlier work in terms of their ambivalence toward home. Tyler's sympathies highlight, in particular, the eccentric habits of white middle America: middle-class, middle-aged individuals suspended between "Tips From the Beauty Stars" security measures and childish rebellion. When the glib young Julian, Macon's editor, sails into Macon's sister Rose's life, setting her spinster sensibilities spinning with soap opera fantasies, the rest of the family is threatened by the stranger's intentions to make himself at home.

"Rose sat down. Tears were glazing her eyes. 'Oh,' she said, 'you're all so mean. You don't fool me for an instant; I know why you're doing this. You want me to look bad in front of Julian...You want to drive him off! You three wasted your chances and now you want me to waste know perfectly well there's nothing wrong with that turkey. You just don't want me to stop cooking for you and taking care of this house. You don't want Julian to fall in love with me!'"


Julian's presence at the usual Thanksgiving dinner of turkey that no one likes to eat in the first place is at least a relief from the resigned monotony of the traditional family gatherings. While the yuppie suitor is ingenuous in his quest to become a permanent guest at the "real" old-fashioned dinners he envies, Tyler has no pretensions about the claustrophobia bred by such intimacy. Beneath the respectable bourgeois values lies a barrenness that has decayed even the excitement of sex. Macon's instinctive response to the dogtrainer Muriel's aggressive passes is the urge to confess that ever since the separation from his wife, "sex...has turned (like milk)."

Like the old-maidish son Ezra, whose nostalgia for family dinners inspires the idea to open The Homesick Restaurant, the Learys are sexless, neutral creatures whose homesick tendencies keep them permanently sheltered. Determined to save herself from a similarly myopic fate, Sarah bails out on a marriage run to entropy. The frustrated, impatient sister Penelope scornfully calls Macon "an armchair traveller," an Odysseus who can't even get up a sense of adventure.

TYLER'S OFTEN CYNICAL view of homelife is especially irreverent in its treatment of motherhood. Displaced from their traditionally sacred realm, mothers are often associated with neglectful absence. Homesick Restaurant opens with the dying words of the matriarch Pearl, whose children--haunted by guilt for their own inability to forgive--cannot escape even in her death the repressive intimidation she tormented them with in life. Following her death, Ezra, Pearl's favorite, becomes a kind of surrogate mother, collecting the family together for the homemade dinners their mother never provided and taking it upon himself to keep up at least the appearance of a family. The Learys' mother, Alice, is a stranger to her children as well. Macon recalls with bitter amusement how once during one of her inspired whims, she subjected them all to an experimental nudist elementary school. Resembling none of her children in temperament, she disappears one day on the back of her hippie-boyfriend's motorcycle.

Even when the mother is present in the home, there remains a suggestion of irresponsibility. Muriel, the dogtrainer, is sensitive to Macon's disapproving observation that she is bringing up Alexander, her illegitimate son, on a diet of television and Oodles of Noodles. Similarly, Macon silently reproaches his wife for having allowed Ethan to attend camp, despite his objections. The suggestion of her maternal irresponsibility echoes again later in her rejection of Macon's conciliatory proposal to have another baby to make up for their loss.

Sarah's situation ultimately illustrates an ironic victory for feminism. While she gains her liberty from the conservative domesticity typified by her husband's annoying habits--his cautious driving, his nightly flossing routine before bed, his compulsion for organizing--she discovers she has become too tamed to overcome her dependency on familiar routines. Similarly, Rose returns from her honeymooon and comes straight back home, abandoning Julian, to her kin and the estabslihed shrine of domestic order to which she has long sacrificed any personal desires. While critical of women's traditional roles, Tyler attributes their pathos less to the forces of social oppression than to self-resigned defeat.

Sue Carney, a sympathetic neighbor, confesses to Macon that at times she feels like "a Gold Star mother": "Like someone who's suffered a loss in a war...and then forever afterward she has to go on supporting the war...because otherwise she'd be admitting the loss was for no purpose." Tyler, however, mourns the tragedy of the family less as a lost, noble cause than as an illusion offering the comforts of a live burial.

No wonder, then, that Macon finds relief in the "bizarre" Muriel Pritcherd and her slightly-sordid transient air. Macon is half-fascinated and half-repulsed by Muriel's comic pretensions of gentility. She shows up at Rose's wedding, the only woman wearing, Macon notices, spiked heels with ankle straps. She isn't even really pretty, her youthfulness appearing more immature than sexy. Upon his first sight of her at the Meow Bow vet clinic, Macon notes the knobby collarbones "promising unluxurious flesh."

Still, despite all her obvious flaws, he has to admit that Muriel has a certain flair. In one of her spirited moments, she belts out a reckless rendition of "War Is Hell On the Homefront, Too." Muriel, he realizes, is a fighter. Her pathetic ignorance wages war on the conventional proprieties that have long ossified the rest of the Learys. Macon's decision to give up middle-class respectability for its underside of secondhand thrift shops and carry-out pizza dinners turns out, ironically, to be less of an escape than an adventure in responsibility. He discovers himself feeling an odd protective concern for the sickly seven-year-old Alexander, a stranger's son.

In fact, it is Sarah's desertion which provides the cure to Macon's existential homesickness. By the time she comes back desiring her old security and admitting that "some things are worse than boring," it is too late. Having been thrust into unfamiliar territory, Macon has been forced to confront his own restlessness. Sitting in a hotel room, the world-weary traveller idly muses on the idea of calling his next book "The Accidental Tourist At Home." At one point, in lonely desperation, he considers faking a coronary just to feel the soothing touch of a human hand. Tyler's complex ironies offer no easy solution to the quest for home. Rather than bringing him neatly full circle back to familiar territory, Macon's odyssey leaves him in Oz. It is in this world of peculiar intimacies, where strangers become family and families remain strangers, that Tyler's remedy for homesickness offers Dorothy's ingenuous lesson that "home" is where the heart and its unpredictable yearnings lie.

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