ROADS OF THE HEART *

By Christopher Tilghman

Random House. 210 pp. $24.95American literary fiction now offers far fewer pleasures than it did a few decades ago, but the novels and short stories of Christopher Tilghman go a long way toward making up for the failures of other writers. In some degree this doubtless is explained by the leisurely path he took toward a writing career; it was not until he was in his forties that he published his first book, In a Father's Place, which gave him time to get over the narcissism of youth and to take an interest in people other than himself. Mainly, though, it is because he writes about subjects that really matter in elegant, measured prose; he has intelligent things to say, and he is a distinctive stylist.

Roads of the Heart is Tilghman's fourth book and second novel. Like almost everything he has written, it is set on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where Tilghman's family roots -- think Tilghman Island -- run deep. It is a place he knows intimately and loves ardently, "a sliver of the Old South nestled right up to the Mason-Dixon Line," though he has no illusions about its complicated past or about the state in which it is situated. Indeed, in a few sentences he gets Maryland just right:

"He'd always felt the Marylander's twinge of envy toward the Old Dominion, for being a place of history, the father of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe; for Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson; for its firm place in America as the source of an honorable if myopic democratic tradition; for its loyalty to its principles even when they were wrong. Maryland was home to second-rank revolutionaries, aides-de-camp at best, a border state always calculating the odds, making its deals sometimes to the north, with Pennsylvania, sometimes to the south, with Virginia, a rather bland and boggy piece of territory whose main claim to fame was not its land or its people, but a body of water thrust into its midst. Rather like Rhode Island, a small, inconsequential state split in two by a bay."

Probably only someone who's got innumerable ancestors buried in Maryland's soil could get away with that, but of course it's all true. Tilghman deals in truths, and he's drawn to hard ones. He writes about families -- the best of all subjects, endlessly interesting, endlessly elusive -- and in particular about fathers and sons. In Roads of the Heart the father is Frank Alwin, who at 82 has spent the past decade struggling against the crippling effects of a stroke and the no less devastating aftershock of a scandal in which, as a powerful state senator, he "was expelled from the Senate" for having a "bimbo on his payroll, oldest story in politics, but a sensation in Maryland, a sour measure of the influence he had once wielded." The son is Eric Alwin, "fifty-plus," an advertising executive in New York who frequently drives down from his house in the suburbs ("Summit, New Jersey, where the accomplishments of its residents resulted in houses that were not so much residences as territories") for weekend visits with his father.

Frank Alwin is alone except for Adam Miller, a hulking, somewhat mysterious and touchy guy who serves him as "a nurse and a housekeeper," and occasional visits from his eldest child, Alice, who lives near his Eastern Shore farmhouse with her husband. His first wife, Audrey, the mother of his three children, ran out of patience with his infidelities and inattention more than three decades ago and divorced him; his second wife, Marjorie, was killed by cancer. Now he rarely leaves his chair and can speak only in sounds that mostly are incomprehensible. As the novel opens he is repeating one of these over and over: "He pointed his thumb back at his chest and said it again: 'Mottsecks. Me.' "

Eric tries desperately to come up with the word his father is struggling to say, but each one he offers is rejected. Not until he is driving back to New Jersey that evening in bad weather does it come to him -- mistakes -- and with that a long, complicated journey begins. It is both a literal journey -- Frank wants Eric to drive him to Alabama, where he hopes to seek Audrey's forgiveness -- and a figurative one, the theme of which, though in the end many themes emerge, is "coming back from impossibly long odds." It is a "glorious, perhaps mad gesture toward how things ought to be," about which Eric thinks: "Why not do this? An old man, his father, stirring for perhaps the last time, planning his escape from regret, a voyage of redemption."

We all make mistakes, some of which are terrible: "What a mess we can make of things, the advantages we can piss away, the love we can refuse from people who want to give it, the good advice we can fail to hear or ignore. What does it take to make us stop making mistakes, or doing all these things? Why do we seem so uncorrectable?" Good questions, ones that any sentient human being ought to ask all of the time but that mostly we try to pretend aren't worth asking.

Frank has made plenty of mistakes. His "great pleasure in the unvarnished duplicity and nastiness of politics" led him to make deals he shouldn't have; his susceptibility to "the mysteries and perversities of desire" led him into beds where he had no business being; his indifference toward Audrey cost him both the love and the presence of a woman who had given him loyalty far beyond what he had earned; his rank hostility toward his youngest child, Poppy, led her to flee Maryland and start an entirely new, entirely separate existence in Houston.

Eric hasn't done so well either. His three decades of marriage to Gail have been happy and fruitful in many ways -- he loves her desperately and finds her astonishingly beautiful -- yet "he had not been a faithful husband, which he had admitted to Gail in due course, and in partial payment a few years ago, Gail had slept with one of Eric's old friends, and then told some friend who then spread the word." He's been paying less attention to business at the ad agency of which he is co-owner. His only child, Tom, now an adult, lives a hand-to-mouth existence in Denver and tries to keep his distance from his parents, whom he finds smothering.

All of this, as well as another problem that sails right in from the blue, comes into play as the trip progresses. Eric thinks of the journey as "the Magical Mystery Tour," but Tom cautions that "what you're doing is more dangerous than the Beatles." Dangerous, to be sure, and there's a point at which Eric realizes that "all this apologizing was starting to get him down," but it's redemptive too, "a father's last gift, or sacrifice to his children." Yet Tilghman doesn't trowel it on. The trip becomes as much a comedy as a search: "it had taken on the flavor of a grand outing, an excursion and not, as it had seemed earlier, an expedition; not so much a voyage of discovery as a tour. It was the kind of thing that had never happened in their family before."

The literal-minded will object that a lot of improbable stuff happens along the way. This is true, but it's beside the point. The trip is as much Eric's fantasy as his reality: a chance to put things right in his father's last days, a chance for Frank to show "a kind of courage in the face of so many years of mistakes," not to correct those mistakes -- too late for that -- but to atone for them and to give his children the opportunity to go on with their lives renewed and reconciled.

Tilghman understands the powerful bonds between fathers and sons, but he also understands the tensions, the resentments, the undercurrent of anger. A conversation between Eric and Gail, talking about Tom, gets right to the point:

"Eric laughed. 'You know, someday I'd love to find out what he really thinks of me.'

"Gail slid over and put her hand on his neck. 'It wouldn't hurt your feelings. It would be filled with love, and perplexity.'

" 'And anger?'

" 'Of course. What else?' She left out the last unnecessary phrase: 'You're his father.' "

In one way or another, that point is made in just about everything Tilghman has written. It's a universal truth, if a hard one, and in his hands it invariably leads to interesting, sometimes moving, revelations. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.