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Quiescence as an Art Form : SAINT MAYBE, <i> By Anne Tyler (Alfred A. Knopf: $22; 355 pp.)</i>

Tourists wouldn’t be scared to find themselves in an Anne Tyler neighborhood, with its mid-middle-class frame houses, its arthritic maples, its front porches decently painted but showing a little sag, its small upkeeps seen to, its big ones put off for the time being.

Not scared but probably lost. Why on earth would they be there? Perhaps taking a few hours from their downtown itinerary to visit the first cousins Mother had lost track of. And to find them unexpectedly lively. And wonder why they’d never been before. And resolve to keep in touch. Perhaps they will.

It’s something like that, reading Tyler. There is a little reluctance, a little impatience. Why are we visiting these ordinary lives instead of seeing the sights? Sure, there’s the quiet desperation, voiced up through moral lucidity and anarchic humor into a kind of scat trumpeting. There is the wildness--wilder for being so reasonable--that makes a trip through her teacup tempest into an odyssey.

It’s high-risk stuff, though, writing at the borderline of dullness. Tyler treads right up to the bland, cute and sentimental, as some Victorian writer might have edged up to the dark and perverse. Occasionally she falls across. She conducts guerrilla raids on banality; sometimes she is captured. She divides sophisticated readers as much as anyone I can think of. Some of them can’t do without her, some can’t abide her, and some incline both ways.

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Until her last three books, I might have placed in the last category. But “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,” “The Accidental Tourist” and “Breathing Lessons” moved me up into the first. “Dinner” is a perfectly proportioned villa of lights perched firmly if incautiously right up on that borderline. The other two are more like breathtaking sorties, making up in astonishment for a few casualties here and there.

“Saint Maybe” stands some ways behind, I think. It has any number of Tyler virtues; it also has a more insistent quantity of Tyler defects. It takes an extra risk by being more overtly serious than its predecessors, and it does not entirely get away with it.

In some respects, “Saint Maybe” will recall “The Accidental Tourist.” It too has a hero whom tragedy knocks into an elusive recessiveness. In both books, the congealing event is the violent death of a loved one. In both, the hero’s gray retreat is breached by a gaudy and eccentric young woman. The resemblance, however, is not imitation but a deliberately worked variation.

Ian Bedloe starts as the youngest and most golden of three children in a Baltimore family that has chosen wonderfulness as its particular domestic myth. The myth-keeper is Bee, the mother. Every Bedloe thing is special; at Christmas, the centerpiece is hors d’oeuvre instead of turkey. Specialness survives the fact that Douglas, the father, is a nice but unremarkable high school teacher, that Claudia, the married daughter, keeps a distance, and that Danny, the older son, works in the post office.

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Ian is a star athlete, has a beautiful girlfriend, and will be going to college. He subscribes to the wonderfulness but notices that it has its hitches. When Danny brings home a fiancee who is bubbly but divorced, and the mother of two children, Bee does show a microsecond of hitch. But almost immediately she is celebrating the prospect of future recruits for a family baseball team. Ian wonders: “Already she had passed smoothly over to unquestioning delight, and he had missed his chance to see how she did it.”

Things quickly turn dark. Lucy, Danny’s bride, is erratic and elusive. Danny dies in a drunken car crash after Ian incautiously points out what he has taken for signs of Lucy’s present or previous promiscuity. She goes to pieces, overdoses on sleeping pills and dies. She has no traceable family, and suddenly the Bedloes are faced with raising Agatha, 6, Thomas, 3, and Daphne, born between Danny’s death and Lucy’s.

Wonderfulness has vanished. What is left is a suddenly elderly couple, too feeble and traumatized for the job. Something will be worked out, Bee tries to assure Ian. Plainly, nothing will. Painfully, grudgingly, he gives up college, gets a job as an apprentice woodworker and spends the next 20 years as the Bedloe breadwinner, parent and chief worrier.

His decision is made after he wanders into a storefront revivalist group, the Church of the Second Chance. Emmet, its preacher, directs his small congregation in a life of weekly public confessions, mutual assistance and selective abstinence--no coffee, for instance. When Ian walks in, tormented by guilt over Danny’s death and uncertain what to do, Emmet’s recipe is simple. Never mind about guilt, he says; what is wanted is practical atonement. Thus, the next 20 years.

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It is a self-denying life. The house is a slovenly mess; nobody has the energy to do more than the minimum. Bee, in one of those quietly rending speeches that Tyler excels at, laments:

“Our lives have turned so makeshift and second-class, so second-string, so second-fiddle, and everything’s been lost . . . we’ve had such extraordinary troubles and somehow they’ve turned us ordinary. That’s what’s so hard to figure.”

Ian marks his renunciation by turning deliberately pallid, slow and cautious. “Saint Maybe,” Daphne calls him when she reaches her sparky, turbulent adolescence. “King Careful.” He turns aside the efforts of various young women to perk him up. One of the book’s best scenes comes when Agatha, Thomas and Daphne evaluate Daphne’s teacher as a possible main squeeze for Ian. Approving, they bring her over for a comically disastrous dinner.

Ian’s 20-year penance is ended partly by time passing, partly by the children growing up and doing well, and, most spectacularly, by the arrival of Rita. Tall, frizzy-haired and so forthright and sensible as to seem utterly wacky, Rita is a dead-ringer for Muriel, the dog-trainer in “Tourist.” Her job is quite as eccentric and, when you think of the actual needs of contemporary urban life, as logical. She is a Clutter Counselor. She goes through houses, using the outsider’s cold eye to call memorabilia by its right name--junk--and to throw it out.

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Rita is Tyler at one of her frequent bests. So is the earnest but oddly spritely Rev. Emmet. So is the moving chapter in which, as Lucy falls apart, her two small children try to take care of her, each other and the baby. They grow up fine, though crookedly and unevenly. Tyler has the gift of keeping her characters in clear sight as they wax, wane and torn unexpected corners along the passage of time.

All this said, she has required too much of her hero. Ian’s recession marks a genuine, even heroic moral act, unlike the more or less arbitrary elusiveness of Macon Leary in “Tourist.” And yet, for all the integrity and delicacy with which Tyler treats him, he is considerably duller. His muted spirits, justifiable as they are, mute the book. His long stretches of quiescence grow oppressive and lack much countervailing eccentric energy. And at the end, too many things come together too sweetly and tidily. Tyler’s over-the-border strike force has not managed to escape without taking losses to sentimentality.


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