Near the end of Anne Tyler’s new novel “Noah’s Compass,” the hapless, laid-off fifth grade teacher Liam Pennywell finds himself listening to his new pre-school co-teacher Miss Sarah read from A.A. Milne’s “Now We Are Six:”
King John was not a good man,
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him,
For days and days and days.
It is a cautiously upbeat ending to a novel compassionately focused on the struggles of Liam to adjust to his late life malaise. “He had lost his last chance at love; he knew that. He was nearly sixty-one years old, and he looked around at his current life – the classroom hung with Big Bird posters, his anonymous apartment, his limited circle of acquaintances – and knew this was how it would be all the way to the end.” Who better than Milne to wrap it all up in verse.
“Noah’s Compass” starts with a sober assessment of Liam’s predicament: “In the sixty-first year of his life, Liam Pennywell lost his job. It wasn’t such a good job, anyhow…Things seemed to have taken a downward turn a long, long time ago, and perhaps it was just as well…In fact, this might be a sign. It could be just the nudge he needed to push him on to the next stage – the final stage, the summing-up stage. The stage where he sat in his rocking chair and reflected on what it all meant, in the end.”
With a modest pension, Liam begins the “downsizing” of his life. Married twice – one wife committed suicide and the other left him – he lives alone in Baltimore but close enough to his three daughters, father and step-mother, and ex-wife to have to deal with their concerns for him…and disappointments in him. Piling extra stuff on the curb for scavengers, he takes minimal furniture and belongings from his large, old apartment to a much smaller, new unit in a suburban complex – what his older daughter calls “a rinky-dink starter apartment directly across from a shopping mall.” It is not a pretty picture.
The first night after his move, he is apparently beaten by a would be burglar who breaches the unlocked patio sliding door – apparently because Liam wakes in a hospital to find his head and hands bandaged and no recollection of anything after lying down in his bed. While not completely farfetched, this metaphorical wiping the slate clean allows Tyler to introduce an element of romance in the character of Eunice, the caretaker (“rememberer”) for an aging tycoon whose dementia puts him and Eunice in the same neurologist’s waiting room as Liam.
Gradually Eunice turns his empty days (“…just sitting, just listening, just staring ahead with his hands resting on his kneecaps, was not enough to use up the day.”) to ones of pleasant anticipation and companionship. Adding drama to this drama, his youngest teenage daughter moves in with him to avoid the tension of her relationship with her mother. As in most Tyler novels, there are many comings and goings, detailed meals, messy bedrooms, bathrooms rich with the scents of shampoos and shaving creams.
Eunice is a scatterbrain. “People like Eunice just never had quite figured out how to get along in the world. They might be perfectly intelligent, but they were subject to speckles and flushes; their purses resembled wastepaper baskets; they stepped on their own skirts.” But Liam is infatuated and happy with her good points: “She was refreshingly indifferent to domestic matters. She didn’t try to rearrange his furniture, or spruce up his wardrobe, or balance his diet.”
Such a happy future, however, is not meant to be. By happenstance, Liam runs into her mother at the supermarket and discovers Eunice is already married. His new second wind in life blows away. “This was like those accidents you read about in the paper: an overpass collapses and a man driving underneath is instantly killed. He stayed in his lane, obeyed the lights, checked his rearview mirror, observed the speed limit, and still he was killed. These things just happen.” An honorable man who was hurt in the past by his own father’s infidelity, he breaks up with Eunice.
As Liam explains to his grandson regarding one of his Bible coloring book stories, “Noah…wasn’t going anywhere…There was nowhere to go. He was just trying to stay afloat. He was just bobbing up and down, so he didn’t need a compass…” It is enough in Tyler’s world just to stay afloat: enjoying a little romance, living with a teenage daughter, playing with a grandson – these may be all one needs. “He had an ok place to live, a good enough job. A book to read. A chicken in the oven. He was solvent, if not rich, and healthy.”
Whether we are six or sixty, A.A. Milne is not a bad place to find reinforcement of Tyler’s take on things. Liam Pennywell, like many of us, lives his life and finds his appropriate stair “Halfway Down.”
Halfway down the stairs
Is a stair where I sit.
There isn’t any other stair
Quite like it.
I’m not at the bottom,
I’m not at the top;
So this is the stair
Where I always stop.
Halfway up the stairs
Isn’t up and isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery,
It isn’t in the town.
And all kinds of funny thoughts
Go running round my head:
“It isn’t really anywhere!
It’s somewhere else instead!”