His great-grandfather was visited by an angel (almost certainly female) who enjoined him to build and patent a wooden "dress tree" for women, an annunciation which resulted in affluence for the next three generations and in the locally famous Gaitlin Foundation, a charity now managed by Barnaby's father and elder brother. But no angel has yet come Barnaby's way. About to turn 30, he can't be considered a success. In his youth he earned himself a criminal record, hard to outlive after the city newspaper's memorable branding of him as the Paul Pry Burglar. (He would steal letters, diaries and photograph-albums from the houses he broke into.) His early marriage was scandalously short-lived; now, humiliatingly, he has to travel on Saturdays up to Philadelphia to spend time with his nine-year-old, and largely unresponsive, daughter. Barnaby has found no employment more sustainable than Rent-a-Back, a small firm which carries out heavy or tedious tasks for those no longer capable of doing them.
And then, "on the last day of a bad old year", on Baltimore station, waiting to catch the 10.10 to Philadelphia, Barnaby does at last meet his angel. Or so it seems. The way Sophia comes to his attention is remarkable indeed. A middle-aged man approaches Barnaby's fellow-passengers in turn as they await the train, in the hope that one of them will take an envelope for him to Philadelphia station; here his daughter will be standing by a phone booth, ready to receive it. (It contains her passport which, in her hurry, she'd forgotten.) Of those asked, only Sophia agrees. Barnaby is amazed not just by this woman's assent, but by her whole manner, not only in the concourse but later, during the train journey and on Philadelphia station itself. She exhibits complete sang-froid, no trace of anxiety or nagging curiosity. (For who knows what the envelope might really contain?) Isn't this the behaviour of a true angel? She's attractive and about 35, and Barnaby resolves to make her acquaintance.
To his joy - at any rate at first - Sophia is only too happy to play the angel's role for him. Not for her, analyst at a bank though she is, the conventional man firmly embarked on a respectable, lucrative career. No, the more she learns of Barnaby's erratic past and unstable present, the more attracted and gratified she is - and the more attached too.
Beginnings in which the extraordinary erupts into the mundane to challenge and even change the people it touches, have been a feature of Anne Tyler's novels almost from the first. Perhaps none is more memorable than that of Earthly Possessions (1977) in which the protagonist, Charlotte Emory, is kidnapped at gunpoint in a bank at the very moment when she's withdrawing money in order to leave her husband. Her captor turns out to be an amiable, feckless young man whose very first crime this is; he abducts her in his old car down to Florida, so Charlotte well and truly quits Baltimore and husband. Shortly after the publication of this novel, one of her finest, I went to see Anne Tyler in her Baltimore home to interview her for my study of writers of the American South, Separate Country (1979). Though born in Minneapolis, Anne Tyler grew up in North Carolina and considers herself a Southerner, who has drawn on Southern oral and literary traditions in her work (just as she considers Baltimore, the setting of almost all her adult writing, a Southern city). I found a beautiful, friendly, thoughtful woman in her late thirties, married to an Iranian psychiatrist, and the mother of two daughters, and her talk has remained with me ever since, illuminating the subsequent productions of her phenomenal career.
She described herself then as the "original commune child", growing up in a series of utopian communities, mostly of Quaker pacifist complexion. She was allowed a good deal of freedom, though, and made friends who were living very different lives from that of her idealistic family, which employed workers both white and black in the tobacco fields, for instance. This was to give her fiction its wide social franchise (the delightful A Slipping-Down Life of 1970 has a wholly redneck milieu), its ease of movement between one social group and another. Southerners of all kinds talk to each other in an extremely person-centred way, she believes; their stories revolve round individuals rather than events, and certainly their own novels are conspicuous for the irreducible individuality of her characters. Surveying the Southern world about her, she was moved as a student by the writings of Eudora Welty, particularly by some lines from her story, "The Wide Net":
"Edna Earle ... never did get to be what you'd call a heavy thinker. Edna Earle could sit and ponder all day on how the little tail on the 'C' got through the 'L' In a Coca-Cola sign." What insight these sentences gave one into both a community and a person! Unlike Welty, however, Anne Tyler has moved away from traditionalist rural (or semi-rural) terrain; at the time of my visit to her she was being spoken of as the first urban Southern novelist, and certainly Baltimore and its suburbs seem now inseparable from her oeuvre.
Anne Tyler spoke of her happy relationships with father, brothers and husband. These are surely responsible for the exceptional tenderness of her rendering of a wide variety of male characters. (Barnaby Gaitlin, who most convincingly narrates A Patchwork Planet, is a triumphant example.) It's not surprising that those connoisseurs of malehood, Nick Hornby and Roddy Doyle, have named Anne Tyler as their most admired novelist. They appreciate that for her, macho and maverick personality traits don't necessarily cancel out the need (or even the ability) to express love but can complement or co-exist with it. This approach to men was notable in her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes (1964) and amply demonstrated in Searching for Caleb (1976), with a difficult but loving marriage at its centre. But the major achievements in this respect are Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), the deeply moving Saint Maybe (1991) and now A Patchwork Planet.
Anne Tyler was very young indeed - 23 and 24 respectively - when her first two novels were published, and though they'd just been reissued in paperback, she disowned them to me (unjustly, I thought). Her writing career really began, she said emphatically, with her third book, A Slipping- Down Life, about fat, teenage Evie's infatuation with the eccentric, moody rock-singer, Drumstrings Casey, its story based on a newspaper article she'd read about a wild young Elvis fan. Evie in her enthusiasm for "Drum" cuts his name on her forehead with her nail scissors but - by unthinkingly doing this in front of a mirror - she cuts the letters backwards, thus producing an effect very different from that she desired. Evie's action now seems a portent for Anne Tyler's fiction to come: the ordinary-enough person's existential capacity to surprise, by behaviour emanating from depths of longing and frustration, occurs in virtually every one of her novels. Barnaby Gaitlin's decision to stalk Sophia is but its latest manifestation.
That cold day in March 1978, when I visited Anne, and she later drove me along snow-shouldered Baltimore streets to the downtown Greyhound Bus Terminus, came vividly back to me when I talked to her at length on the telephone about this latest novel. Though much in her life has changed - her husband, Taghi Modaressi, died last year after a long, painful illness, and her daughters are grown-up - her manner was just as I remembered it, personal, relaxed, direct, giving each question I asked serious consideration while paradoxically exuding spontaneity - as if all the time she was talking, she was discovering new and exciting aspects of her characters and their situations.
Of the angel motif in A Patchwork Planet, she says it originated in her wanting to have a little fun at the expense of the angel-mania that has swept American culture of late. (The angel, she said, has become a modern equivalent of the tooth-fairy.) Of course, as someone in the book tartly remarks, the Gaitlin angels are significantly worldly visitants. But "in my novels nothing has a meaning attached,' she reminds me. Person- centred like Southerners' stories, her novels show people as more complex than any of their external aspects, no matter how bizarre. Think of the rich, subtly drawn relationship in possibly her most popular novel, The Accidental Tourist (1985), between bereaved armchair-guide writer Macon, and Muriel, the dog-trainer from Meow-Bow, and how it defies all summaries of the duo in question.
A Patchwork Planet, Anne says - like its two immediate predecessors, Saint Maybe and Ladder of Years (1995) - is really about goodness, about our deep-seated wish to be good and the obstacles within and without (conventions, other people's egos) that this has to meet. In Saint Maybe, Ian Bedloe's wish is fuelled by his guilt over his brother's death; this has to be overcome. In Ladder of Years Delia Grinstead feels unable morally to grow as the family woman she has become, but has first to discover, and then to disentangle, the intimate connection between her thirst for goodness and an egotistic desire for escape and self-appeasement. But A Patchwork Planet presents probably the most interesting fictional discussion of goodness Anne Tyler has yet given us.
For Barnaby Gaitlin, as Anne indicated in our conversation, is good without knowing it. Delicately, but with a disquieting acidity, the author traces the essential falsity of Sophia's angelic nature, parallelling the falsity of the commercial angelology which inspired it. Sophia's acceptance of the package on the station is shown to be of a piece with too much of her conduct; it reveals her basic incuriosity, a quality Barnaby, the one-time Paul Pry, is certainly not without. Her very readiness to forgive Barnaby his every peccadillo points both to a vicarious enjoyment of his misdeeds at variance with genuine morality, and to a liking for power over another person. The climax comes when Barnaby is wrongly accused by Sophia's aunt of having stolen some money. Sophia is understanding itself, but perhaps she doesn't actually believe in Barnaby's innocence. Perhaps (more troubling still) she doesn't want to believe in it, for if she does, her role is in danger of being jeopardised.
Barnaby's goodness is to be found in the intensity of his reaction to other people and their predicaments. It is also present where he least expects to find it - in his work for Rent-a-Back, which he discharges with a selfless and always concerned conscientiousness. We don't need to summon angels; we should trust, and develop, our own benevolent instincts.
Anne Tyler's work is often praised for its sweetness of nature, its humanistic hope for people, and for her enjoyment of them. (I remember how, 20 years ago, she compared writing Searching for Caleb with being a guest at a wonderful party.) But her scope of vision shouldn't be underestimated, her sense of the precariousness and pain of existence. Barnaby, usually so vigorous and acerbic in tone, towards the end of the novel confesses:
"Before I started at Rent-a-Back, I thought a guy could just make up his mind to have a decent old age. Now I know that there's no such thing - or if once in a blue moon there is, it's a matter of pure blind luck ... They walk down the street, and everyone looks away from them. People hate to see what the human body comes to - the sags and droops, splotches, humps, bulging stomachs, knobby fingers, thinning hair, freckled scalps."
Passages like this, lightly colloquial but disturbingly courageous in all its details, confirm Anne Tyler, for all her surface amiability, as one of our great contemporary truthtellers.
Anne tells me two days before my call she herself was on Baltimore station about to catch the Philadelphia train to see her daughter. A man edged his way towards her, carrying an envelope. He had, of course, read her novel and recognised her.
"Would you have looked inside it?" he asked her. "I think I would," Anne Tyler replied. "Yes, I'm sure I would..."
'A Patchwork Planet' is published by Chatto at pounds 15.99