Author Anne Tyler has become known for creating offbeat characters who are instantly recognizable as residents of Charm City, the kind of people who pronounce “another” as a noun, as if a nother were an object that could be picked off a sidewalk like a candy wrapper or bug.
The first three of Tyler’s 22 novels take place in North Carolina, where the author grew up and attended Duke University. But the next 18 — every novel that Tyler has published since “The Clock Winder” in 1972 — have been set in different Baltimore neighborhoods ranging from Roland Park to Highlandtown to Hampden.
The communities that Tyler, now 76, profiles share an indefinable quality that might be described as their Bawlamer-ness; yet each also is strikingly individual and described in meticulous detail.
Tyler’s newest novel, “Clock Dance,” was released Tuesday. Though the novel’s cover illustration is of a saguaro cactus — a plant decidedly not native to Maryland — and though the first 80 pages or so skip around from Pennsylvania to California to Arizona, the final two-thirds of the novel settles contentedly into a Northeast Baltimore working-class neighborhood that resembles Hamilton.
“Clock Dance” is a novel about the families we cobble together from people who aren’t related to us by blood.
The book begins in 1967, when the main character, Willa Drake, is an 11-year-old coping with her volatile mother, and follows her for the next 50 years. In 2017, Willa is 61 and on her second imperfect marriage to a man who is loving but controlling when she receives a phone call that changes her life. Denise, the former girlfriend of Willa’s adult son Sean, has been shot in the leg and is hospitalized. Willa is asked to travel to Baltimore to care for Denise’s 9-year-old daughter, Cheryl. Though Willa isn’t related to Cheryl, she agrees.
Tyler writes with enormous warmth about all her characters but reserves her deepest affection for people who work with their hands (frequently for minimum wage) and who populate communities that are down on their luck but determined to get by. It’s all the more remarkable then that the places she describes so eloquently — places with asphalt that’s cracked and crumbling and street corners adorned with a pink stuffed rabbit holding a sign reading “Did you lose me?” are figments of Tyler’s imaginations.
The novels establish a sense of place by including a few public locations that Baltimoreans instantly recognize. “Clock Dance” refers to such familiar thoroughfares as Northern Parkway, Loch Raven Boulevard and York Road. But once the novel zooms down to the micro-level, all details are invented. No matter how long they search, readers will never find the so-called “300 block of Dorcas Lane,” where Denise and Cheryl live, or Towson’s “Cafe Antoine,” where Willa has dinner with Sean and his new girlfriend, Elissa.
Below we’ve paired a list of five fictional places mentioned in “Clock Dance” with some real-life substitutes, places that evoke a similar atmosphere to our minds — though not necessarily to the author’s.
Tyler’s Baltimore readers doubtless will have other — and perhaps better — suggestions. Photograph your proposed proxies and email them to email@example.com with excerpts from the novel that your photos illustrate. We’ll reserve the right to possibly publish some of the cleverest and most insightful submissions in an online feature.
Denise and Cheryl’s home in the “300 block of Dorcas Lane.” Our suggestion: the 2800 block of Christopher Ave.
We could easily have selected a dozen other blocks of compact older homes with signs in the windows advertising small businesses. “All those hopeful little enterprises,” Tyler writes, “squeezed into front rooms or glassed-in porches.” But we were struck that Christopher Avenue, like Dorcas Lane, uses a real first name. And the 2800 block is close enough to Hamilton Elementary/Middle School so that a 9-year-old girl could run out her front door 10 minutes before the first bell rings and make it to class on time.
From “Clock Dance”:
“The cab left downtown behind and finally, after a long trek north, they entered a neighborhood of small, dingy white houses with squat front porches, some of them posted with signs for insurance agencies or podiatry offices. …
“The dark was that halfhearted kind that happens on summer evenings, so that even with all the lights off at Denise’s house Willa could make out its shabby condition — the flaking paint on the porch pillars, the rust stains trickling from the black metal numerals next to the front door. The welcome mat was so frayed that long, ropy strands of it straggled across the porch floorboards. …
“Willa should have felt pity for the meagerness of it all but in fact her main emotion was envy. She drifted idly through the rooms, relishing the hollow sounds of her heels on the worn wooden floors. She gazed out a rear window at the scrubby backyard, where Peter sat with his laptop at a wrought-iron table scabbed with rust.”
“Linchpin Elementary School,” which Cheryl attends and where Denise works as an administrative assistant. Our suggestion: Hamilton Elementary/Middle School, 101 Old Harford Road.
Though the real-life institution lacks the signage and child art Tyler describes, we love the blue, red, orange and green picket fence outside the school. We can easily imagine Mrs. Anderson, Linchpin’s ferociously dedicated principal, patrolling the hallways of Hamilton Elementary/Middle and homing in on potential community volunteers like a heat-seeking missile.
From “Clock Dance”:
“A couple of blocks later they dead-ended at one of those faceless brick school buildings that dated from the 1940s. A new-looking white wooden sign reading ‘Linchpin Elementary’ very nearly covered the older letters etched in the granite above the front door, and some of the windows featured posters and children’s paintings that had faded over the summer. …
“Mrs. Anderson turned with a cracker poised between her thumb and index finger and said, ‘Oh, I always like meeting the grandparents. We consider them a resource. Do you-all have any skills you might want to share with our students?’
“ ‘We’re not actually from Baltimore,’ Willa told her, gliding right past the grandparent reference. ‘We live in Arizona.’ Just like that, she and Peter fell off Mrs. Anderson’s radar.”
The unnamed apartment building where Sean and Elissa live. Our suggestion: Fellowship Court Apartments at Goucher Boulevard and Putty Hill Avenue.
The novel has very few clues to help us narrow down the dozens of apartment complexes that could qualify. But Fellowship Court seemed a likely candidate. Though it isn’t directly off Loch Raven Boulevard, it’s just a stone’s throw away. Sean runs a sporting goods outlet and Elissa is a representative for a window treatment firm, so they can handle a four-figure monthly apartment rental, and we think the lush landscaping would appeal to this upwardly mobile couple.
From “Clock Dance”:
“ ‘Well, so, tell me,’ Willa said hastily. … ‘Are you two, um, do you two live in a house now, or an apartment?’
“ ’Apartment,’ Sean said. ‘Out Loch Raven a ways.’ Which meant nothing to Willa, of course. ‘It’s really nice,’ he said. “Got a balcony, separate dining alcove, study we can use as a guest room — .’ ”
Cafe Antoine, the Towson restaurant where Willa meets Sean and Elissa for dinner. Our suggestion: 7 West Bistro Grille, 7 W. Chesapeake Ave., Towson.
This was tough, because no one place was an exact fit. The street view of The Greene Turtle is visually similar to the restaurant Tyler describes, but it’s unlikely Sean would invite his demure mother to a sports bar. Bread & Circuses Bistro has a quaint ambience but lacks the architectural details the novel specifies. Cunningham’s, unlike Cafe Antoine, is on the main drag and easily spotted from York Road. Eventually, we decided that 7 West Bistro comes the closest.
From “Clock Dance”:
“She drove past a clutter of shops and fast-food places, then rows of modest houses, and finally a commercial district that must be Towson. There she had to check street signs, but the traffic was so stop-and-start that she could take her time reading them. Yes, here was the last street before the next turn, here the turn itself. … She took a left and almost immediately spotted the cafe, its name spelled out in neon script across a mullioned window. But there was no free space in front; oh dear. She took an impulsive right at the next cross street and by some miracle spotted a metered parking lot. …
“Their waitress brought them menus, slightly stained cream-colored menus with tassels. Sean told Willa, ‘I recommend the crab fluff.’ ”
The unnamed hospital where Denise is treated. Our suggestion: MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital, 5601 Loch Raven Blvd.
This one is easy; it’s the only hospital located in Northeast Baltimore. In addition, Tyler spends more time describing the hospital interior than its outside — and let’s face it, one hospital room looks much like any other.
From “Clock Dance”:
“All in all, the room was fairly pleasant — small but airy, with plenty of sunlight coming in through a long plate-glass window that overlooked a parking lot.
“ ‘What’s this?’ a nurse asked, wheeling a machine in. A huge, trudging woman with a wide black face, wearing a uniform resembling pajamas printed all over with teddy bears. ‘Things getting to you, hon?’ …
“The thermometer chirped and the nurse drew it from Denise’s mouth, giving it barely a glance before she shucked the sheath into the waste can and jammed the thermometer into a vase of other thermometers. ‘What level’s your pain at?’ she asked Denise. ‘From one to ten.’
“ ‘Eleven,’ Denise said.
“ ‘No it’s not,’ the nurse said. ‘I can see by the look of you it’s not. I am not upping your meds, I tell you.’ ”
About the Book: “Clock Dance” was published Tuesday by Knopf Doubleday. 292 pages, $26.95.