Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Many stories in T. Coraghessan Boyle’s collection If the River Was Whiskey (1989) deal with similar themes of illusion become disillusion. Tiller’s father once had the illusion of becoming a professional musician, but the reader sees him as a disillusioned man who has failed in every aspect of life. Not only did he fail as a musician, but he also has failed as a breadwinner for his family, as a husband, and, most important, as a father to his son, Tiller. Caroline, Dad, and Tiller form a dysfunctional nuclear family in which each member seems to be in his or her own world. Caroline is a background character who comes forward to proclaim her hatred for her husband. Once sweet lovers, they are now worst enemies. She watches her son swim, but does not join him; in the bar, her attention is completely focused on a stranger she has just met. Tiller’s father is incapable of sharing anything with him. On the contrary, when they are in the boat together, Tiller seems to take on the role of his father’s caretaker, and Tiller’s illusions of having a great time with his father and catching a great fish change to disillusionment with his father’s condition and the carp his father catches.

This story is one of loss and alienation: the father’s loss of hope, of family, of pride, of self-respect, and the son’s alienation from both parents, but especially from his father. Although he avoids thinking about his parents in the same way he avoids thinking of “bald-headed stick people in Africa” and other equally disturbing and inexplicable topics, it is his relationship with his father that suffers a death blow in the futile effort to connect through a fishing trip.