If the River Was Whiskey by T. Coraghessan Boyle

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(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Tilden, a sixth-grader who is also called “Tiller,” is the son of an unemployed alcoholic father. In a vain effort to turn his life around, the father, his wife, Caroline, and Tiller have gone to spend a month at Caroline’s father’s cabin on a lake. Caroline sits in her deck chair watching as Tiller rises to the surface of the lake where he has been snorkeling, jumps out of the water, and immediately casts a fishing line into the water. Back at the cabin, Tiller’s depressed father pours himself a tall vodka and soda from a plastic half-gallon jug, although it is not even noon. He needs a couple of drinks just to begin to feel good. Later, Tiller is sitting in a local bar where his parents are drinking heavily with another couple. The men talk at cross-purposes, the stranger about building supplies, his father about his failed career as a blues musician. The women gossip about people his mother has never met. Both parents ignore their son, who sits quietly watching a neon beer sign flash on and off.

Tiller spends much time alone on this family vacation. In the early mornings, while his parents still lie sleeping, he rows across the lake to fish a certain cove where large pike are said to lurk, according to an old man who lives in the cabin next to Tilden’s. Tiller dresses warmly for these outings and always wears the lifejacket his mother insists on. The lifejacket obstructs his casting, however, so he removes it as soon as he begins to fish. As the day warms up, he removes one article of clothing after another, sometimes remaining nude in the privacy of the cove.

The narrative shifts from this tranquil scene back to the cabin later in the day, where Tiller’s father and mother are having an ugly row. The father rouses from a semiconscious, alcohol-induced state to overhear his wife tell their son that his father is a drunk. Furious, the father leaps from the bed and grabs his wife by the shoulders. Tiller escapes from the cabin, leaving his parents barking mutual accusations. The father accuses his wife of being just as drunk as he; she retaliates by pointing out that at least she has a job. He says he will get another job; she accuses him of spending no time whatsoever with their son and calls him a lousy father. He grabs a bottle of cheap whiskey, her drink, and pours a large serving. They declare their hatred for each other and she leaves.

Tilden tries not to think about his parents, but when he does think of his father, he remembers the day he came home from school to find his father home, playing the...

(The entire section is 713 words.)