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The Accidental Tourist, by Anne Tyler (Knopf: $16.95; 355 pp.)

September 15, 1985|RICHARD EDER

Anne Tyler, you might say, is as funny as a crutch. Who else has so clear a sense of pain and can summon up the gleefulness that does not heal it but allows us to swing across it?

I don't know if there is a better American writer going. When a writer is good enough, he or she, by definition, is impossible to compare; the vision is too individual. But I can't think of another major novelist who so plainly is still gaining on herself.

There are several characteristics, it seems to me, of a Tyler novel. One is the made-up quality of her characters. They and their lives are invented for the pleasure and instruction to be had from them. They are odd but utterly recognizable; mirrors set at an extravagant angle to catch what is going by. The author stands a certain distance away; they are not chunks torn out of a psyche or a childhood. They do not in the first instance stand for anything but themselves, yet they manage to stand for a great deal more.

Second, along with their inventedness--first you think: how beguiling; only then do you think: how true--goes a kind of respect. Tyler gives them room to exercise their qualities. Like somebody walking a dog--it is more like the dog walking the person--she will stop or wander off to accommodate them instead of dragging them along her route and at her pace. It can be a fault; and there is a characteristic loss of momentum from time to time in a Tyler novel, as if the direction had been temporarily mislaid.

Finally, she manages a three-way sensibility. Tyler knows how things are supposed to feel. She knows how they do feel, in fact, and she knows how they might feel in some barely imaginable better world. Out of this difficult triple balance, formal, real and visionary, comes the memorableness of her people.

These qualities are apparent in her new novel, "The Accidental Tourist." Its protagonist, Macon Leary, is an oddity of the first water, and yet we grow so close to him that there is not the slightest warp in the lucid, touching and very funny story of an inhibited man moving out into life.

Macon is a travel writer who hates both travel and strangeness. It is for this quality that a publisher has chosen him to do a series of guide books for businessmen who have to travel around the world but never really want to leave home.

Macon scouts hotels for their proximity to the efficient American ideal. He checks up on hamburger places in Paris; and in London, he evaluates restaurants with such names as "Yankee Delight" and "U.S. Open." He counsels eating and drinking nothing on planes or bringing your own food. He advises pre-counted envelopes of foreign currency to avoid dealing with foreign banks. He suggests bringing a minimal wardrobe--one medium gray suit should cover any eventuality including funerals, he writes--and small individual packets of detergent to avoid foreign laundries.

There is great fun in Macon's travels. They are, of course, the occupational symbol of a character and an attitude toward life: self-absorbed, self-sufficient and narcissistic. But even here, Tyler is concerned to show the passionate spirit imprisoned in the individual detergent packs. Macon is a contradiction, and the book will set him free but meanwhile, on his travels, we get a hint or two in advance. He inspects a hotel. Everything is sanitary and satisfactory, but Macon is not happy. Warmth is lacking. Perhaps, he ventures to the nonplused manager, hotels might offer small animals: a dog maybe, or a cat.

At home in Baltimore, in fact, Macon has a dog named Edward. He is undisciplined, emotional and occasionally ferocious: the opposite of what Macon seems to be. And it is through the dog that Macon's transformation will eventually take place.

As the book begins, Macon's wife leaves him. It is a splendid scene: The two of them are driving home from the beach. It is raining and Sarah, his wife, is terrified of driving in the rain. Macon won't stop, though; he has a system for this kind of driving. In a few pages, Tyler gives us a carful of unhappiness and 20 years of marriage. Sarah can no longer live with this kind, intelligent, careful man who is utterly enclosed in his systems.

There is something else, as well. Their 12-year-old son had been killed a year before by a madman who shot up a hamburger joint. The tragedy has separated them. If Macon's imperviousness to life was hard to bear, the death makes it unbearable.

Macon takes refuge with his two brothers and sisters. His condition, it turns out, is familial. All the Leary's are charming and unbearable compulsives who are either unmarried or whose wives have left. They have family routines, family sayings, family recipes, and a family board game that no outsider can figure out. Rose, the sister, keeps her food pantry in alphabetical order.

Macon retreats gratefully for a while, but his heart is uneasy, and Edward bites people. Macon calls a pet-training agency, and on his doorstep Muriel appears.

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