A Patchwork Planet
I’m not talking about your Guardian Angel. I was raised with that comforting idea–that there was always one of God’s helpers ready to steer you from harm. No, I mean the person, perhaps sent by God, whose sole interaction with you sets your life on its proper course.
No? Neither has Barnaby Gaitlin.
Barnaby is the young man at the heart of this story and heart is the right word although young might not be. When we first meet him, in Baltimore’s Penn Station on the morning of the last Saturday in December, he’s just shy of thirty. Young to me now and young when the book was published in 1998 but feeling not so young to Barnaby himself.
I actually recall that feeling, in another out-of-work summer a quarter of a century ago.
Barnaby has yet to get his life in gear, at least from a traditional perspective. He’s traveling by train to Philadelphia to see his daughter, who’s approaching nine. She lives by Rittenhouse Square an address I am just familiar enough with Philly to know speaks to everything Barnaby is not–prosperous, settled, established.
Yet there’s no reason this should be.
Barnaby, we discover, is a Gaitlin and there is a Gaitlin fortune. How large is never said but it’s big enough to warrant a foundation that it is now the family’s business to administer. The fortune is probably not Tech Era entrepreneur-sized since it was laid down when technology involved moving matter and not electrons.
Barnaby does not help administer the fortune.
In fact, he is engaged in manual labor and lives in a basement apartment. Actually room is more like it since I picture the kitchen bolted to one wall. The family from whom he rents reaches their washer and dryer through his space and he shares their bath. Cozy is a kind description; a fear-of-falling shudder is an understandable reaction.
The firm he works for is Rent-a-Back: You supply the brains, we supply the muscle. It’s a service that allows people–mostly elderly–to hire help by the hour.
The business is integral to the story but it’s also a means to what Tyler does best–draw small, believable portraits of recognizably ordinary, and some not so ordinary, people. This story is populated with steady customers and co-workers that serve as the mosaic of Barnaby’s life.
Just how this scion of Baltimore wealth fell into such a state is a big part of the story and I don’t want to give it away. The thing is, though, it’s not really a state in the way the idiom usually suggests. Barnaby is, mostly, content. He enjoys his work. He enjoys his customers. He enjoys his coworkers.
What he dislikes is feeling powerless. That’s a big part of the back story which comes to the forefront once Barnaby meets Sofia. That happens early on, during that initial trip to Philadelphia, in fact. If the author weren’t Anne Tyler you might think you were starting in on the tale of a stalker because he contrives to make her acquaintance in a rather obvious way.
Sofia, Barnaby thinks, could be his angel.
This is a good time to address the angel business. Barnaby’s grandfather, the source of the family fortune, had a brief encounter with a young woman who set him to inventing, fame and fortune. So certain was he that this encounter was divine intervention that he memorialized it in verse.
He also declared that all Gaitlins had an angel and that they, too, should recount the tale of their encounter and resulting blessing. Dad did it. Barnaby’s brother, Jeff, did it, too.
This admittedly flimsy tradition–one that could only be passed along in a particular sort of family–is a blood obligation. I noticed that Barnaby’s mother, a woman whose roots lie in Baltimore’s ethnic blue-collar precincts (her heritage is Polish and Roman Catholic) bears none of the responsibilities of the Gaitlin blood.
The multi-generation project’s results are kept in, literally, the family library. The work, even grandpa’s original poem, is not the stuff of great literature and seems to deteriorate with each generation–angels calling stock market tops seems disrespectful to angels at the very least.
Barnaby, I sense, sort of believes in this and sort of doesn’t. Sofia just might be his angel. She’s a bit older, more established. She works in a bank and fulfills her responsibilities, filial and otherwise. As the calendar turns the pair begin dating. The book is really the tale of their relationship.
I hate that word, relationship–it seems clinical and milquetoasty all at once, begging for an end if only to make the word go away. Yet that’s what it is. Barnaby’s family might like it to be a courtship. Sofia might like it to be one, too. But our lovers never quite reach that level of commitment, and, in any case, the seeds of demise have been present from the start.
Those seeds lie in Barnaby’s back story. As these things go, Barnaby is hardly the worst of the lot but in Baltimore’s higher social strata it’s enough to cast ruin upon an all but guaranteed future.
Those better folks, the Gaitlins and their neighbors, are the ones unwilling to forgive, forget and move on. They cling to who he was like a life raft. Even Sofia, who was nowhere near those events, holds them as setting Barnaby’s life course in concrete.
The folks who are really closest to Barnaby–his coworker Martine, his boss, his grandparents on his mother’s side and many of the clients who rush to his defense when things get particularly sticky–take him at face value. They may not agree on what it is they like about him–he’s sweet, he’s philosophical, he’s handsome–but that doesn’t matter. He’s a good guy and they take him as such.
There was a time, back in the late 1980s, when I read a lot of Anne Tyler. I was living in Manhattan‘s Chelsea neighborhood and we had our own homesick restaurant, Miss Ruby’s Cafe. It’s long-gone now and Ruby had passed on before I left, almost 18 years ago.
I’d also lost touch with Ms. Tyler, but I’m glad we reconnected,