In a Father’s Place

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

These seven stories celebrate the solidity of place and the importance of community and family, defending the conservative values of working class men and landed gentry against any deviations from them or rebellions against them. In “On the Rivershore,” a Chesapeake Bay fisherman kills a no-account young man who is annoying his daughter; he disposes of his body with the help of his fellow watermen. In “Loose Reins,” a young man returns to his Montana home to try to come to terms with the fact that his mother has married a former ranch hand; he decides that the hand with his simple values is superior to his businesslike and busy father. A man sets out with his infant child in “Hole in the Day” to find his young wife, who, driven to despair by discovering she is pregnant with her fifth child, has run away; in the end she feels compelled to return to her role as mother and wife. And in the title story of the collection, the head of a well-established Maryland family drives out his son’s iconoclastic and domineering girlfriend, thus asserting the superiority of family over the post-modern views of the girlfriend, who reads Jacques Derrida and talks about how the son is “deconstructing” the family in the novel he is writing.

For those who approve of such conservative virtues these stories may serve as a welcome reaction against the narrative experiments and post-modern values that have characterized the short story in recent years. Tilghman’s prose, however, is often either flat or forced, and too full of explanation and tedious rumination to allow the narrative to emerge. There is little of the universal sense of mystery here that makes for short story permanence.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVI, April 15, 1990, p.1609.

The Christian Science Monitor. June 15, 1990, p. 13.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, February 15, 1990, p.218.

Library Journal. CXV, May 15, 1990, p.96.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 29, 1990, p.3.

The New Republic. CCII, June 4, 1990, p.40.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, May 6, 1990, p. 12.

Newsweek. CXV, April 2, 1990, p.59.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, February 9, 1990, p.44.

Time. CXXXVI, July 2, 1990, p.67.

In a Father's Place In a Father’s Place

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 2002 words.)

In a Father's Place Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Tilghman is often seen as a traditional writer who builds his fiction on careful and extensive development of character and story. He is a patient storyteller, willing to spend time and words on detail that ultimately builds toward dramatic or spiritual climax. “In a Father’s Place” demonstrates this patience in the sheer length of its telling—it is nearly a novella—and in its depth of character detail.

Tilghman also uses a traditional narrative method here, avoiding the postmodern trend toward the self-conscious storyteller. The third-person omniscient narrator is neither ironic nor self-reflexive; we have no sense that Tilghman is drawing attention to the fact that he is telling a story or that he is somehow poking fun at that story.

Tilghman is also a traditionalist in his willingness to invest his fiction with a certain spiritual element. His fiction finally and meaningfully affirms the humane character of one’s endeavors, without lapsing into sentimentality or preachiness. He seems to practice what novelist John Gardner defined as “moral fiction”—fiction told to celebrate the ultimate humanity of the ambiguous, baffling, and often contradictory human heart.

In a Father's Place Bibliography

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVI, April 15, 1990, p.1609.

The Christian Science Monitor. June 15, 1990, p. 13.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, February 15, 1990, p.218.

Library Journal. CXV, May 15, 1990, p.96.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 29, 1990, p.3.

The New Republic. CCII, June 4, 1990, p.40.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, May 6, 1990, p. 12.

Newsweek. CXV, April 2, 1990, p.59.

...

(The entire section is 59 words.)