Noah's Compass

Noah's Compass

3.1 187
by Anne Tyler

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Liam Pennywell, who set out to be a philosopher and ended up teaching fifth grade, never much liked the job at that run-down private school, so early retirement doesn’t bother him. But he is troubled by his inability to remember anything about the first night that he moved into his new and spare condominium on the outskirts of Baltimore. All he knows when he

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Liam Pennywell, who set out to be a philosopher and ended up teaching fifth grade, never much liked the job at that run-down private school, so early retirement doesn’t bother him. But he is troubled by his inability to remember anything about the first night that he moved into his new and spare condominium on the outskirts of Baltimore. All he knows when he wakes up the next day in the hospital is that his head is sore and bandaged. His effort to recover the moments of his life that have been stolen from him leads him on an unexpected detour. What he needs is someone who can do the remembering for him. What he gets is . . . well, something quite different.

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Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
…a small story that provides an interesting variation on those dismal tales of aging by [Philip] Roth & Co…"Just trying to stay afloat"—neither sinking into Roth's existential despair nor ascending into Oprah's blinding self-delight—that's the difficult, totally unhip theme that Tyler takes clear to the end of this understated novel. In fact, Noah's Compass is likely to dissatisfy many of the author's fans, who have come to count on her for more fully resolved tragedies or more satisfying personal insights. Instead, with Liam, she has articulated the melancholy stasis of many older people's lives.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Like Tyler's previous protagonists, Liam Pennywell is a man of unexceptional talents, plain demeanor, modest means and curtailed ambition. At age 60, he's been fired from his teaching job at a “second-rate private boys' school” in Baltimore, a job below his academic training and original expectations. An unsentimental, noncontemplative survivor of two failed marriages and the emotionally detached father of three grown daughters, Liam is jolted into alarm after he's attacked in his apartment and loses all memory of the experience. His search to recover those lost hours leads him into an uneasy exploration of his disappointing life and into an unlikely new relationship with Eunice, a socially inept walking fashion disaster who is half his age. She is also spontaneous and enthusiastic, and Liam longs to cast off his inertia and embrace the “joyous recklessness” that he feels in her company. Tyler's gift is to make the reader empathize with this flawed but decent man, and to marvel at how this determinedly low-key, plainspoken novelist achieves miracles of insight and understanding. (Jan.)
Library Journal
"In the sixty-first year of his life, Liam Pennywell lost his job." Echoing loudly the cadences of biblical prose, Tyler's opening sentence portends Liam's ominous downward spiral. Soon after he's forced into early retirement from a second-rate private boy's school, Liam moves to a smaller apartment. Once unpacked, he lies down to sleep and wakes up the next morning, head sore and bandaged, in the hospital. With no recollection about how he ended up there, Liam wanders through his days searching, much like Noah scanning the desolate waters for land. Along the way, he meets Eunice, who cannot prod his memory of that night but does stir some of Liam's other long-forgotten feelings. Working at her characteristically leisurely pace, Tyler poignantly portrays one man's search for wholeness and redemption as he picks up the shards of a life shattered by the crashing waves of aging. Unlike similar Updike and Roth characters, who worry more about their inability to perform sexual athletics any longer, Tyler's character struggles with the visceral loss of identity brought on by forced retirement and the indignities of memory loss. VERDICT Another winning effort by Tyler; for readers of Reynolds Price's The Promise of Rest and early Tyler novels such as Dinner at Homesick Restaurant. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/09.]—Henry Carrigan, Evanston, IL
Kirkus Reviews
Instead of the measured critical commentary typically found here, let's consider this column a mash note. For the converted, the publication of a new Anne Tyler novel is like holy communion, a ritual return to the altar of the Homesick Restaurant, another opportunity to explore the muddles of the human condition in language as clear as a mountain spring. Noah's Compass, her 18th novel, is one of Tyler's more deceptively rich and enigmatically titled (there is no character named Noah, and the evocation of the Bible story lasts less than a page). Set as usual in her native Baltimore, the novel concerns a fifth-grade, private-school teacher named Liam Pennywell, who has been "downsized" from his employment at the age of 60 and who subsequently suffers a traumatic injury that causes him to lose a bit of his memory. His life had seemed pretty empty before he left the job he disliked, and now it seems emptier. His first wife committed suicide (he still appears numb to this tragedy), and his second divorced him in exasperation. His three daughters don't know him as well as does his one sister, whom he sees maybe once per year. He has one friend but has no idea how that relationship has sustained itself. "I'm not unhappy, but I don't see any particular reason to go on living," admits Liam. Not the most promising protagonist, but Tyler remains the most extraordinary chronicler of everyday wonders, the author who best understands how our flaws define us, yet how difficult it is for us to absolve others until we are able to absolve ourselves. Life never goes as planned, but the surprises it offers to those who are receptive to them can provide redemption beyond expectation. Through some combinationof initiative, fate and chance, Liam discovers in his search for his missing memory just how much he has repressed, and he finds himself open-to love and to hurt-at an age when he thought he'd left such emotions behind. "It's as if I've never been entirely present in my own life," he says. Such a discovery doesn't inevitably lead to a happily-ever-after conclusion. Beneath the comedy on the surface of any Tyler novel lies an undercurrent of existential melancholy. His feelings renewed, Liam sees himself "ambushed by complexities . . . It struck him that life in general was heartbreaking-a word he didn't toss off lightly."In Tyler's novels (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, 1982; the Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons, 1988), to understand is to forgive. We are formed by our past but need not be imprisoned by it. Some families thrown together through happenstance can forge stronger bonds than those related by blood. Small epiphanies can awaken us to possibilities we had never anticipated. By the end of the novel, the particulars of Liam's life really haven't changed that much, but he is utterly transformed. And so will be the reader. First printing of 300,000
From the Publisher
Praise for Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass
“Everyone loves Anne Tyler . . . and her 18th novel will doubtless supply another reason.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
Noah’s Compass is immensely readable. It displays many of Tyler’s finest qualities: her sharp observation of humanity, her wry comedy; the luminous accuracy of her descriptions . . . Hers is a fine-grained art, whose comedy could easily coarsen into the self-consciously quirky. If it does not, this is because her surprises are rooted in character: it is human nature that she evidently finds infinitely fascinating and surprising, with its constantly unforeseeable capacity for change . . . [A] novel by Anne Tyler is cause for celebration.”
—Caroline Moore, The Sunday Telegraph
“Tyler reveals, with unobtrusive mastery, the disconcerting patchwork of comedy and pathos that marks all our lives.”
—Michael Dirda, The Wall Street Journal
“Dazzling . . . A beautifully subtle book, an elegant contemplation of what it means to be happy.”
—Elizabeth Day, The Observer, UK
“Fired from his job, Liam Pennywell moves into a small apartment and wakes up the next morning in the hospital with head injuries he can’t explain. What turns out to have been an attack by a thief leads to unexpected grace, as Liam is forced to engage more deeply with his family and with a woman who finds him irresistible.”
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“Pure pleasure”
—Helen W. Mallon, Philadelphia Inquirer

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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5.28(w) x 7.94(h) x 0.67(d)

Read an Excerpt

Noah's Compass

A Novel
By Anne Tyler

Ballantine Books

Copyright © 2010 Anne Tyler
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780345516596

In the sixty-first year of his life, Liam Pennywell lost his job. It wasn’t such a good job, anyhow. He’d been teaching fifth grade in a second-rate private boys’ school. Fifth grade wasn’t even what he’d been trained for. Teaching wasn’t what he’d been trained for. His degree was in philosophy. Oh, don’t ask. Things seemed to have taken a downward turn a long, long time ago, and perhaps it was just as well that he had seen the last of St. Dyfrig’s dusty, scuffed corridors and those interminable after-school meetings and the reams of niggling paperwork.

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.

He had a respectable savings account and the promise of a pension, so his money situation wasn’t out-and-out desperate. Still, he would have to economize. The prospect of economizing interested him. He plunged into it with more enthusiasm than he’d felt in years—gave up his big old-fashioned apartment within the week and signed a lease on a smaller place, a one-bedroom-plus-den in a modern complex out toward the Baltimore Beltway. Of course this meant paring down his possessions, but so much the better. Simplify, simplify! Somehow he had accumulated far too many encumbrances. He tossed out bales of old magazines and manila envelopes stuffed with letters and three shoe boxes of index cards for the dissertation that he had never gotten around to writing. He tried to palm off his extra furniture on his daughters, two of whom were grown-ups with places of their own, but they said it was too shabby. He had to donate it to Goodwill. Even Goodwill refused his couch, and he ended up paying 1-800-GOT-JUNK to truck it away. What was left, finally, was compact enough that he could reserve the next-smallest-size U-Haul, a fourteen-footer, for moving day.

On a breezy, bright Saturday morning in June, he and his friend Bundy and his youngest daughter’s boyfriend lugged everything out of his old apartment and set it along the curb. (Bundy had decreed that they should develop a strategy before they started loading.) Liam was reminded of a photographic series that he’d seen in one of those magazines he had just thrown away. National Geographic? Life? Different people from different parts of the world had posed among their belongings in various outdoor settings. There was a progression from the contents of the most primitive tribesman’s hut (a cooking pot and a blanket, in Africa or some such) to a suburban American family’s football-field-sized assemblage of furniture and automobiles, multiple TVs and sound systems, wheeled racks of clothing, everyday china and company china, on and on and on. His own collection, which had seemed so scanty in the gradually emptying rooms of his apartment, occupied an embarrassingly large space alongside the curb. He felt eager to whisk it away from public view. He snatched up the nearest box even before Bundy had given them the go-ahead.

Bundy taught phys ed at St. Dyfrig. He was a skeletal, blue-black giraffe of a man, frail by the looks of him, but he could lift astonishing weights. And Damian—a limp, wilted seventeen-year-old—was getting paid for this. So Liam let the two of them tackle the heavy stuff while he himself, short and stocky and out of shape, saw to the lamps and the pots and pans and other light objects. He had packed his books in small cartons and so those he carried too, stacking them lovingly and precisely against the left inner wall of the van while Bundy singlehandedly wrestled with a desk and Damian tottered beneath an upside-down Windsor chair balanced on top of his head. Damian had the posture of a consumptive—narrow, curved back and buckling knees. He resembled a walking comma.

The new apartment was some five miles from the old one, a short jaunt up North Charles Street. Once the van was loaded, Liam led the way in his car. He had assumed that Damian, who was below the legal age for driving a rental, would ride shotgun in the van with Bundy, but instead he slid in next to Liam and sat in a jittery silence, chewing on a thumbnail and lurking behind a mane of lank black hair. Liam couldn’t think of a single thing to say to him. When they stopped for the light at Wyndhurst he contemplated asking how Kitty was, but he decided it might sound odd to inquire about his own daughter. Not until they were turning off Charles did either of them speak, and then it was Damian. “Swingin’ bumper sticker,” he said.

Since there were no cars ahead of them, Liam knew it had to be his own bumper sticker Damian meant. (BUMPER STICKER, it read—a witticism that no one before had ever seemed to appreciate.) “Why, thanks,” he said. And then, feeling encouraged: “I also have a T-shirt that says T-SHIRT.” Damian stopped chewing his thumbnail and gaped at him. Liam said, “Heh, heh,” in a helpful tone of voice, but still it seemed that Damian didn’t get it.

The complex Liam was moving to sat opposite a small shopping mall. It consisted of several two-story buildings, flat-faced and beige and bland, placed at angles to each other under tall, spindly pines. Liam had worried about privacy, seeing the network of paths between buildings and the flanks of wide, staring windows, but during the whole unloading process they didn’t run into a single neighbor. The carpeting of brown pine needles muffled their voices, and the wind in the trees above them made an eerily steady whispering sound. “Cool,” Damian said, presumably meaning the sound, since he had his face tipped upward as he spoke. He was under the Windsor chair again. It loomed like an oversized bonnet above his forehead.

Liam’s unit was on the ground floor. Unfortunately, it had a shared entrance—a heavy brown steel door, opening into a dank-smelling cinderblock foyer with his own door to the left and a flight of steep concrete steps directly ahead. Second-floor units cost less to rent, but Liam would have found it depressing to climb those stairs every day.

He hadn’t given much thought beforehand to the placement of his furniture. Bundy set things down any old where but Damian proved unexpectedly finicky, shoving Liam’s bed first one way and then another in search of the best view. “Like, you’ve got to see out the window first thing when you open your eyes,” he said, “or how will you know what kind of weather it is?” The bed was digging tracks across the carpet, and Liam just wanted to leave it where it stood. What did he care what kind of weather it was? When Damian started in on the desk—it had to be positioned where sunlight wouldn’t reflect off the computer screen, he said—Liam told him, “Well, since I don’t own a computer, where the desk is now will be fine. That about wraps things up, I guess.”

“Don’t own a computer!” Damian echoed.

“So let me just get you your money, and you can be on your way.”

“But how do you, like, communicate with the outside world?”

Liam was about to say that he communicated by fountain pen, but Bundy said, chuckling, “He doesn’t.” Then he clapped a hand on Liam’s shoulder. “Okay, Liam, good luck, man.”

Liam hadn’t meant to dismiss Bundy along with Damian. He had envisioned the two of them sharing the traditional moving-day beer and pizza. But of course, Bundy was providing Damian’s ride back. (It was Bundy who’d picked up the U-Haul, bless him, and now he’d be returning it.) So Liam said, “Well, thank you, Bundy. I’ll have to have you over once I’m settled in.” Then he handed Damian a hundred and twenty dollars in cash. The extra twenty was a tip, but since Damian pocketed the bills without counting them, the gesture felt like a waste. “See you around,” was all he said. Then he and Bundy left. The inner door latched gently behind them but the outer door, the brown steel one, shook the whole building when it slammed shut, setting up a shocked silence for several moments afterward and emphasizing, somehow, Liam’s sudden solitude.

Well. So. Here he was.

He took a little tour. There wasn’t a lot to look at. A medium-sized living room, with his two armchairs and the rocking chair facing in random directions and filling not quite enough space. A dining area at the far end (Formica-topped table from his first marriage and three folding chairs), with a kitchen alcove just beyond. The den and the bathroom opened off the hall that led back to the bedroom. All the floors were carpeted with the same beige synthetic substance, all the walls were refrigerator white, and there were no moldings whatsoever, no baseboards or window frames or door frames, none of those gradations that had softened the angles of his old place. He found this a satisfaction. Oh, his life was growing purer, all right! He poked his head into the tiny den (daybed, desk, Windsor chair) and admired the built-in shelves. They had been a big selling point when he was apartment hunting: two tall white bookshelves on either side of the patio door. Finally, finally he’d been able to get rid of those glass-fronted walnut monstrosities he had inherited from his mother. It was true that these shelves were less spacious. He’d had to consolidate a bit, discarding the fiction and biographies and some of his older dictionaries. But he had kept his beloved philosophers, and now he looked forward to arranging them. He bent over a carton and opened the flaps. Epictetus. Arrian. The larger volumes would go on the lower shelves, he decided, even though they didn’t need to, since all the shelves were exactly, mathematically the same height. It was a matter of aesthetics, really—the visual effect. He hummed tunelessly to himself, padding back and forth between the shelves and the cartons. The sunlight streaming through the glass door brought a fine sweat to his upper lip, but he postponed rolling up his shirtsleeves because he was too absorbed in his task.

After the study came the kitchen, less interesting but still necessary, and so he moved on to the boxes of foods and utensils. This was the most basic of kitchens, with a single bank of cabinets, but that was all right; he’d never been much of a cook. In fact here it was, late afternoon, and he was only now realizing that he’d better fix himself some lunch. He made a jelly sandwich and ate it as he worked, swigging milk straight from the carton to wash it down. The sight of the six-pack of beer in the refrigerator, brought over the day before along with his perishables, gave him a pang of regret that took a moment to explain. Ah, yes: Bundy. He must remember to phone Bundy tomorrow and thank him at greater length. Invite him to supper, even. He wondered what carry-out establishments delivered within his new radius.

In the living room he arranged the chairs in what he hoped was a friendly conversational grouping. He placed a lamp table between the two armchairs and the coffee table in front of them, and the other lamp table he set next to the rocker, which was where he imagined sitting to read at the end of every day. Or all day, for that matter. How else would he fill the hours?

Even in the summers, he had been accustomed to working. St. Dyfrig students could be counted on to require an abundance of remedial courses. He had taken almost no vacation—just one week in early June and two in August.

Well, think of this as one of those weeks. Just proceed a day at a time, is all.

On the kitchen wall, the telephone rang. He had a new number but he had kept his existing plan, which included caller ID (one of the few modern inventions he approved of), and he checked the screen before he lifted the receiver. ROYALL J S. His sister. “Hello?” he said.

“How’s it going, Liam?”

“Oh, fine. I think I’m just about settled.”

“Have you made up your bed yet?”

“Well, no.”

“Do it. Now. You should have done it first thing. Pretty soon you’re going to notice you’re exhausted, and you don’t want to be hunting for sheets then.”

“Okay,” he said.

Julia was four years his senior. He was used to receiving orders from her.

“Later in the week I may stop by and visit. I’ll bring you a pot of beef stew,” she said.

“Well, that’s very nice of you, Julia,” he said.

He hadn’t eaten red meat in thirty-some years, but it would have been useless to remind her.

After he hung up he obediently made his bed, which was easily navigated since Damian had positioned it so there was walking space on either side. Then he tackled the closet, where clothes had been dumped every which way. He nailed his shoe bag to the closet door and fitted in his shoes; he draped his ties on the tie rack that he found already installed. He’d never owned a tie rack before. Then, since he had the hammer out, he decided to go ahead and hang his pictures. Oh, he was way ahead of the game! Picture hanging was a finishing touch, something that took most people days. But he might as well see this through.

His pictures were unexceptional—van Gogh prints, French bistro posters, whatever he’d chosen haphazardly years and years ago just to save his walls from total blankness. Even so, it took him a while to find the appropriate spot for each one and get it properly centered. By the time he’d finished it was after eight and he’d had to turn all the lights on. The ceiling globe in the living room had a burnt-out bulb, he discovered. Well, never mind; he’d see to that tomorrow. All at once, enough was enough.

He wasn’t the slightest bit hungry, but he heated a bowl of vegetable soup in his miniature microwave and sat down at the table to eat it. First he sat facing the kitchen alcove, with his back to the living room. The view was uninspiring, though, so he switched to the end chair that faced the window. Not that he had much to see even there—just a sheet of glossy blackness and a vague, transparent reflection of his own round gray head—but it would be nice in the daytime. He would automatically settle in that chair from now on, he supposed. He had a fondness for routine.

When he stood up to take his empty bowl to the kitchen, he was ambushed by sudden aches in several parts of his body. His shoulders hurt, and his lower back, and his calves and the soles of his feet. Early though it was, he locked his door and turned off the lights and went into the bedroom. His made-up bed was a welcome sight. As usual, Julia had known what she was talking about.

He skipped his shower. Getting into his pajamas and brushing his teeth took his last ounce of energy. When he sank onto the bed, it was almost beyond his willpower to reach over and turn off the lamp, but he forced himself to do it. Then he slid down flat, with a long, deep, groaning sigh.

His mattress was comfortably firm, and the top sheet was tucked in tightly on either side of him as he liked. His pillow had just enough bounce to it. The window, a couple of feet away, was cranked open to let the breeze blow in, and it offered a view of a pale night sky with a few stars visible behind the sparse black pine boughs—just a scattering of pinpricks. He was glad now that Damian had taken such trouble to situate the bed right.

Most probably, he reflected, this would be the final dwelling place of his life. What reason would he have to move again? No new prospects were likely for him. He had accomplished all the conventional tasks—grown up, found work, gotten married, had children—and now he was winding down.

This is it, he thought. The very end of the line. And he felt a mild stirring of curiosity.

Then he woke up in a hospital room with a helmet of gauze on his head.

From the Hardcover edition.


Excerpted from Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler Copyright © 2010 by Anne Tyler. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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