(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Elizabeth Tallent’s stories have been praised by many of her reviewers for the same reasons that they have been criticized by others: her precise detail, her metaphoric plots, her highly polished structure, and her elegant style—all characteristics that have changed little over the course of her writing career. Frequently, Tallent’s critics charge, her stories are simply too geometrically structured and predictable, and her language is too mannered and forced. However, all Tallent’s critics seem to agree that her understanding of the complexities that arise from broken marriages and reconstituted families is artistically acute.

Like her most obvious literary inspiration, John Updike, about whom she has written a critical book, Tallent creates stories that at first seem straightforwardly realistic and transparent, like chapters out of a domestic novel, but which, on closer reading, are recognized as tightly structured, symbolic stories in which no matter how loosely related and tangential events seem to be, they all inevitably come together by the end.


The story’s conflict begins when Dennis’s former wife Christie returns from Europe after breaking up with her most recent boyfriend, and Dennis decides not to let their thirteen-year-old son Andy spend the summer with her because she has ignored the boy for the past year. The first event that contributes to changing Dennis’s mind is Andy’s getting a tattoo of a skeleton on a motorcycle, telling his father, “It’s my body”—a realization which astonishes Dennis.

However, the most important event that changes Dennis’s mind occurs when he enters Christie’s apartment while she is not home. Dennis knows he is an intruder and feels an “amazed apprehension of his own wrongdoing” but is fascinated by this glimpse into the life of a woman no longer his wife. He is even more enthralled when he lies down in a bedroom meant for Andy, for he knows there are things in it that Andy would like. Dennis dreams a dream he feels was meant for Andy about the boy and his mother cutting animals from construction paper when he was young, and “what he’s seen won’t let go easily.” As a result of his “prowler” experience, Dennis takes Andy to his mother a few days later, although he can give her only a wave that means “I can’t explain it.”

“Prowler” is fairly typical of many of Tallent’s stories. Dennis’s refusing his former wife visitation rights for the summer is only a conventional motivation to make possible Dennis’s dual realization. The tattoo then makes possible Dennis’s realization that Andy is a separate entity, since it allows Andy to say that his body is his own and since it is a permanent change that cannot be undone. The more extended epiphany occurs when Dennis lies down on the bed in the room his former wife has prepared for Andy and sees that his son would like how she has prepared it, realizing that his former wife knows her son well and loves him. His knowledge that his son does not “belong” to him and that the boy has both a mother and a father makes him change his mind about the visitation.


Although the “ice” of the title of this story derives from the fact that the central figure is a young woman who skates in a traveling ice show with a man dressed as a bear, this is counterpointed by her memory of her grandmother, who slipped on icy stairs and died while trying...

(The entire section is 1426 words.)