It doesn’t take long for Anne Tyler to establish our hero, Liam Pennywell, as a pathetic character. He has been recently “fired,” or “downsized,” depending on your viewpoint, from his teaching job.
In the first few pages of “Noah’s Compass,” Liam bravely assesses the situation and recognizes that he ought to live more simply and frugally. He gives up his comfortable apartment and moves to a small, nondescript one-bedroom place.
To say that Liam doesn’t get any respect from his ex-wife and his daughters, would be an understatement.
One grown daughter describes her father (to his face) as “A sixty-year-old man in a rinky-dink starter apartment directly across from a shopping mall.”
Rubbing it in, the daughter adds, “A sixty-year-old man who can still move all his belongings in the very smallest size U-Haul.” A man who drives a used Geo Prizm.
Liam endures this tirade at a time and place when he could use a little sympathy. He’s in a hospital bed with a painful bump on his head and stitches in one hand. Apparently, he was attacked by an intruder on the first night in his new apartment. Worse, he has suffered a concussion and can’t remember what happened. The loss of one night’s memory is driving Liam crazy.
That sums up the first 75 pages of Noah’s Compass. The theme, far as I can tell, is that Liam is dealing with aloneness and a loss of self-esteem and self-confidence. He sees zero future prospects for himself. But oddly, he looks forward to his bleak future with some curiosity.
Anne Tyler has written about quirky characters enduring loss and grief before. In fact, it is her specialty.
After 75 pages, Ms. Tyler has built a bit of suspense that something completely unexpected is about to happen. I imagine that Liam is about to embark, at age 61, on an unlikely adventure.
— John Hayden