My job sends me to a lot of comic book conventions, so I’ve spent many hours in a 10×10 booth chatting with science fiction, fantasy, and horror enthusiasts. Whenever someone raises the subject of “favorite author,” my Comic-Con friends are usually surprised by my answer: Anne Tyler, author of so-called “family novels” and “marriage novels” like DINNER AT THE HOMESICK RESTAURANT, BREATHING LESSONS, and A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD. She’s my go-to writer any time I need a shot of inspiration; I’ll just open any of her books and start reading, and within 30 minutes I am fully recharged. There’s something about her style and voice that I find irresistible.
My favorite Anne Tyler novel is THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST—the story of Macon Leary, a travel writer who hates to travel. After Macon’s son dies in a violent tragedy, he and his wife are consumed with grief and end up separating. Forced to start anew in midlife, Macon becomes depressed, ends up breaking his leg, and falls into a new relationship with a kooky dog trainer.
If the novel I’ve just described sounds rather bleak, let me assure you that it’s just the opposite—joyful, exhilarating, and brimming with comic invention. In fact, what I love most about THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST (and a lot of other Anne Tyler novels) is the way its characters are always thinking creatively, always designing new ways to save time, save money, and amuse themselves. Macon writes a series of travel guides for businessmen who don’t like to travel. His siblings play a card game called Vaccination, which “they’d invented as children…[and it] had grown so convoluted over the years that no one else had the patience to learn it.” The kooky dog trainer, Muriel, runs a concierge service called “George” that also offers chauffeuring, poison-proofing, and bomb detection.
When THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST was first published in 1985, these characters were described by many as “quirky misfits,” but I think they were simply ahead of their time. If the novel were set in 2017, there’s no doubt Muriel would be working in our new sharing/service economy; she’d be renting her spare bedroom on Airbnb, driving for Uber, and raising money for her creative projects on Kickstarter.
In one of my favorite scenes, Macon’s sister Rose pioneers a new way to roast a Thanksgiving turkey. She’s heard about slow-cooked beef and decides to take the same approach to poultry, heating the turkey overnight at the low temperature of 140 degrees. By dinner the turkey is a ruined, dried-out mess (and probably poisonous)…but here again, I’d argue that Rose was simply 30 years ahead of her time. Google “slow-cooked turkey” today and you’ll find dozens of websites showing you how to do it properly!
There’s so much joyful invention and imagination in THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, I never get tired of (re)reading it. It’s also one of the most hopeful novels I’ve ever read. Some people are lucky enough to rediscover happiness after a terrible tragedy, and THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST shows how one reluctant traveler does just that.