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Books: Eat and Run

4 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard

DINNER AT THE HOMESICK RESTAURANT by Anne Tyler Knopf: 303 pages; $13.50

Every other year or so since 1964, loyal readers pick up their new Anne Tyler novel as they would buy a favored brand of sensible shoe. Each of her nine books is solidly constructed from authentic and durable materials. Yet traditional style and comfort do not necessarily mean dullness. Tyler’s characters have character: quirks, odd angles of vision, colorful mean streaks and harmonic longings. They usually live in ordinary settings, like Baltimore, the author’s current home, and do not seem to have been overly influenced by the 7 o’clock news. An issue in a Tyler novel is likely to mean a new child; a cause, the reason behind a malfunction in an appliance or a marriage.

Tyler does not trivialize motives with rationalizations. She launches her imagined lives and describes their trajectories with an unpretentious sense of fate. No explanations are necessary when Beck Tull, a retired traveling salesman, attends the funeral of the wife he left 35 years before and acts as if he has been on a long business trip. This occurs at the end of Homesick Restaurant, and the reader is not surprised. The scene has had careful preparation, and Tull has been well defined by his absence. He is the black hole around which his wife Pearl and children Cody. Jenny and Ezra have had to exist. The novel opens with Pearl Tull, 85, dying and remembering. It then turns effortlessly into a series of chapters about her children that can almost be read as self-contained stories.

The family anger takes different forms. Pearl becomes a compulsive handyman. “All she wanted was to be allowed to get on with what mattered: calk the windows; weatherstrip the door. With tools she was her true self, capable and strong.” Son Cody finds his outlet as a time-and-motion consultant. The richer he grows weeding out waste and inefficiency around the country, the clearer it becomes that time and motion are all he truly possesses. Daughter Jenny is a pediatrician who marries three times and buries herself in runny noses, diaper rashes and colic. There seems to be no line between her own assorted brood and her patients.

Ezra is the dreamer who nurtures the novel’s most enduring illusion. He runs a restaurant as if his soups and stews could cure loneliness and disappointment. The permutations of food and woe inspire him: “Why not a restaurant full of refrigerators, where people came and chose the food they wanted? . . . Or maybe he could install a giant fireplace, with a whole steer turning slowly on a spit. You’d slice what you liked onto your plate and sit around in armchairs eating and talking with the guests at large. Then again, maybe he would start serving only street food. Of course! He’d cook what people felt homesick for.”

Ezra’s homesick restaurant is not very profitable. It does manage to survive on its owner’s terms, which, if one reads Tyler correctly, are worth more than the print-outs of an efficiency expert. Cody, in fact, hates Ezra for his wise foolishness and steals his fiancée. She is a scrawny country girl who unhappily ends up in expensive boxy suits and fancy automobiles. But Ezra is not deterred. A would-be wife turned sister-in-law is still family, and a family should eat together.

The amusing motif of the novel is Ezra Tull’s persistent efforts to prepare feasts for his family. They are acts of faith at which courses go untouched. The clan gathers only to eat and run. Even old Beck, sitting down with his children after 35 years, says, “I plan to leave before that dessert wine’s poured.” Everything has changed; nothing has changed. It is the special satisfaction one gets from Anne Tyler, a writer who knows exactly what to do with leftovers.

—ByR.Z. Sheppard

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