The renaissance that the short story enjoyed during the 1980’s was primarily the result of a small number of writers excelling in two basic modes of short fiction: the absurdist, self-reflexive mode, exemplified by Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth, and Donald Barthelme; and the minimalist, hyperrealist mode, seen in the works of Bobbie Anne Mason, Raymond Carver, and Grace Paley. The absurdist mode derives from writers pushing the metaphysical tale of Edgar Allan Poe to self- reflexive extremes, while the hyperrealist mode represents an intensified extension of the highly abbreviated slices-of- stylized-life developed by Anton Chekhov.
The 1980’s renaissance of the short story, always an artfully self-conscious genre, owes little or nothing to writers practicing realism in the more conventional sense, that is, writers who are concerned with a relatively straightforward mimesis of external reality and the social values usually associated with such a realistic approach. Contemporary absurdist short fiction has been, by its very nature, surreal, whereas minimalist short stories, if real at all, embody something critics call hyperrealism, which, like the so-called realism of Chekhov and Ernest Hemingway, is actually highly stylized and self-conscious.
The high point of the short story renaissance has passed and the short story is accepted as a legitimate genre by the critics and the everyday reader. Consequently, a number of young writers, who have often started their careers by publishing stories in the journals and quarterlies, are now able to have their short stories published in book form even before they prove themselves with a novel. Christopher Tilghman is one such writer. This is his first book, and it is made up of seven stories which originally appeared in such respected quarterlies as The Sewanee Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and that most favored slick-magazine publisher of short stories, The New Yorker. Unlike stories in either the surreal or the hyperreal tradition, however, Tilghman’s stories are motivated by the value system which seems to underlie them all. Rather than challenging the foundations of Western culture as absurdist stories often do, or laying bare the basic mystery of individual human experience, as minimalist stories do, Tilghman’s stories represent straightforward storytelling in a relatively artless way; they are firmly grounded in the conservative values most other contemporary short stories challenge.
In a Father’s Place is not a collection of fiction in which style is foremost or the fiction-making process is emphasized. There is no temptation on the part of the reader either to linger over language or to study structure. The message is the medium here; Tilghman seems to hold a set of basic American values, and in this collection he marshals them against the forces of rebellion of the 1960’s, the deconstruction of the 1970’s, and the general responsibility-shirking of the 1980’s. Moral truths constitute the motivation for these stories. A few brief plot summaries should be sufficient to indicate what those truths are.
In “On the Rivershore,” a Chesapeake Bay fisherman kills a young man, who “everyone knows is no good,” because he is annoying his daughter; he gets help disposing of the body from friends who agree with him. In “Loose Reins,” a young man returns to his Montana home first to challenge and then to accept his mother’s marriage to a former ranch hand, whose simple values he decides are superior to those of his too-busy and too- businesslike father. In “Hole in the Day,” a young father sets out with his infant to find his wife, who, driven to despair by her pregnancy with a fifth, unwanted child, has run away; in the end she feels compelled to return to her role as unquestioning wife and mother. In both “Norfolk, 1969” and “Mary in the Mountains,” the antiwar and hippie movements of the 1960’s suffer by comparison to the conservative values of a young sailor-husband and a good Christian wife. Finally, in the title story, the head of a well-established Maryland family drives his son’s iconoclastic and domineering girlfriend out of his house, thus asserting the superiority of the well-rooted tradition of family over the postmodernist views of the girlfriend, who reads poststructuralist philosopher and literary critic Jacques Derrida and talks about how the son is “deconstructing” the family in the novel he is writing.
These are not stories in which the fairly simple and straightforward values of working class men, landed gentry, and God-fearing women are questioned, probed, examined, or otherwise put to the test. Rather, the values which underlie Tilghman’s stories are irreproachable and secure, in spite of the fact that the point of view of some of the stories seems to call for an engagement in such questioning. For...