Christopher Tilghman Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Christopher Tilghman’s first book, In a Father’s Place, filled with fictions that are like the later stories of Raymond Carver, fictions that Carver’s mentor, John Gardner, champion of “moral fiction” would have endorsed wholeheartedly, marks the end of the so-called minimalism of the 1980’s. Rather than challenging the foundations of Western culture as absurdist stories of the 1960’s did or laying bare the basic mystery of individual human experience as minimalist stories of the 1970’s did, Tilghman’s stories represent straightforward storytelling, firmly grounded in the conservative values most other contemporary short stories challenge. His second collection, The Way People Run, focuses on some of the same characters and many of the same longings for a lost center that his first collection does.

Tilghman holds up a set of basic American values of family and commitment against the rebellion of the 1960’s, the deconstruction of the 1970’s, and the “me” generation of the 1980’s. Whether Tilghman’s stories represent a general reaction against the self-reflexive and minimalist short fiction of the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s, or whether they simply express one writer’s personal convictions about the importance of traditional values, Tilghman is clearly more interested in moral truths and values than aesthetic ones.

“On the Rivershore”

This is not a story in which the fairly straightforward values of working-class men, landed gentry, and God-fearing women are questioned, probed, examined, or put to the test. A Chesapeake Bay fisherman kills a young man for annoying his daughter and gets help disposing of the body from friends who agree with him that the boy was basically no good. The story is told by a twelve-year-old boy who is the only witness to the killing by his own father of the troublemaker Tommie Todman. Instead of being placed in a wrenching conflict by this horror, the boy recites a litany of Tommie’s offenses. As a man in the story says, Tommie has no family and no one cares what happens to him—all of which seems to justify sinking the boy’s body in deep water with heavy blocks because that is what is best for the community. The story is not cold-blooded or heartless; it is simply coldly reasonable about what is of value and what is not.

“Hole in the Day”

In this story, when Lonnie, a young wife in her twenties, finds out she is pregnant a fifth time—in spite of the fact that she is aging early and has told her husband she wants no more children—she decides to take it no longer and heads out across the midwestern plains to escape. The story, however, focuses on her husband Grant, who drops off three of the kids with family and friends and departs in his old pickup with the youngest, a baby of two years, in search of her. Never does he consider the individual needs of his wife; he only wants to find her so she can return to him. When he does find her, somehow she instantly realizes that she wants nothing else but Grant and her babies, although that decision has not been motivated by anything in the story except the general value system of home, family, and commitment that underlies Tilghman’s fictional universe.

“In a Father’s Place”

One of the best stories in Tilghman’s first collection is the title piece, for it is the most ambitious and potentially the most complex, even though ultimately it too asserts rather...

(The entire section is 1431 words.)