"Noah's Compass" (Alfred A. Knopf), by Anne Tyler: Anne Tyler takes ordinary people and shows the reader how fascinating those people can be. In her latest novel, "Noah's Compass," that person is Liam Pennywell, a very laid-back man of 61 who has just been fired.
Like the biblical Noah, who rode the waters of the great flood without a compass, Pennywell has drifted through life. His personal philosophy is to avoid anything that will take an emotional toll.
He tries to make the announcement of his job termination as easy as possible on his boss and moves quickly to cut expenses.
"It wasn't such a good job, anyhow. He'd been teaching fifth grade in a second-rate private boys' school. Fifth grade wasn't what he'd been trained for. Teaching wasn't what he'd been trained for. His degree was in philosophy."
Far more distressing is a missing spot in his memory. This occurs on the first night in his new apartment, which he'd rented to save money. He goes contentedly to bed, only to wake up in a hospital with no memory of what happened. It's a constant worry, even as Pennywell recovers from a concussion and a vicious bite on his hand.
"His lost memory was like a physical object just beyond his grasp. He could feel the strain in his head. It made the throbbing even worse."
His family doesn't understand his obsession about failing to remember what happened, especially since it was painful and apparently frightening.
On a trip to see a doctor about his lack of memory, Pennywell meets a "rememberer," a young woman who helps an elderly businessman ward off his failure to remember things, and hits on the idea that she can help him.
Eunice Dunstead, with her shapeless fashions, smudged eyeglasses and guileless manner, takes on an allure that he can't shake. She returns his feelings because Pennywell, unlike everyone else in her life, seems interested in her.
Eunice is unable to help him remember the night he's so desperate to remember, but does open him up to other memories. Those memories show him how distant he's been to his family.
This is Tyler's 18th novel, and if not on a level with her best, she's very much at home in her funny, sad tale of wasted moments and unexamined lives.
"Noah's Compass" would be better with a more resolved conclusion to Pennywell's romance with Dunstead. Still, it's a pleasant trip through another of Tyler's ordinary lives.