Picks and Pans Review: Saint Maybe

updated 09/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Anne Tyler

It's a big event in a Tyler novel when someone goes out to buy cat food. Sex and violence are all but nonexistent. Even the common domestic crises that frequently strike her characters are detailed in a matter-of-fact manner.

Yet she is such a student of the art of living with uncertainty, such a connoisseur of the nuances of surprise, that her books are full of energy, like calm rivers with powerful currents.

The protagonist of her 12th novel is Ian Bedloe, a 17-year-old Baltimore boy who comes to feel responsible for the death of his elder brother—and ultimately to take responsibility for raising the brother's baby daughter and two young stepchildren.

Despite his devotion to his own sense of guilt, to the storefront church where he seeks? refuge and to the children, Ian grows into a reticent man—thus the nickname of the title. As years pass, Tyler explores the relationships among the children and between them and Ian; she also maintains a touching subplot revolving around Ian's exhausted, aging parents.

This is in fact a most eloquent consideration of the costs of love.

Ian eventually goes to work for a master carpenter whose deafness protects him from the world and who is here being berated by his son: "The cabinetmaker went on about his business, measuring the counter's length now and the height of the empty space above it. Surely he must have known the son was speaking to him, but he seemed totally absorbed in what he was doing. Once again, Ian envied the man his insular, impervious life."

The book spans 24 years in little more than 300 pages, at times compressing the characters uncomfortably. Yet that fast-forwarding enhances Tyler's ability to ponder how people confront the consequences of their actions—how tempting it is to indulge in emotional hit-and-run, how grueling it can be to stay and face the music and how, once in a while, the music gives you something to dance about. (Knopf, $22)

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