IN A FATHER'S PLACE
By Christopher Tilghman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 214 pp. $18.95
Christopher Tilghman's first book, a collection of short stories, has been a long time coming; Tilghman was in his late twenties before he began writing fiction, and is now in his mid-forties. He is a son of an old and distinguished family of Maryland's Eastern Shore; his own experience includes work on ranches in the West, service in the Navy and freelance copywriting in Boston, where he now lives.
All of this he has put to good use in "In a Father's Place." Though much of his material clearly is autobiographical, he transcends mere narcissism and transforms personal history into stories that touch on the universal. His themes are not exactly original -- the connection between place and character, ties of family and family history -- but his treatment of them is fresh and surprisingly moving.
Certainly he wastes no time luring the reader into his world. The collection's opening story, "On the Rivershore," is a deceptively quiet account of a 12-year-old boy who witnesses a murder and feels obliged to report it even though the crime seems justified and, worse, even though the murderer is his father. The killer is an Eastern Shore farmer and the victim is a Chesapeake Bay waterman, so the incident has social as well as individual import; how the various adults resolve the issues it raises teaches the boy a painful and ambiguous lesson, one he must live with for the rest of his life.
The bay and the shoreline are vivid presences in that story, as is nature in various forms in all the others. "Norfolk, 1969" tells about a young man, just out of college and newly married, who reluctantly goes off on his first extended naval voyage. While his wife stays at home in Norfolk, discovering the anti-war and countercultural movements, he discovers the sea. Later, back at home, he is at dinner with her and her new friends:
"As they sat down to after-dinner marijuana, the conversation shifted to a backpacking trip someone was planning in the Shenandoah, and they talked for a time about quiet communion with nature. Charlie said that actually that was something he had experienced rather strongly at sea. He talked of the endless swells and the storms, the play of porpoises, the seabirds he had learned to identify. He tried to describe the sensation of being lifted into flight with the shearwaters. He talked about the fraternity of running lights in the dark, ships passing in the unquestioned knowledge that here, on the ocean, man and his ships were not intruders but subjects accepted and ruled by natural law."
In this passage, as elsewhere in other stories, Tilghman has the singularly refreshing audacity to suggest that some people have a keener -- a better, if you will -- appreciation of nature than do others. Charlie, the reluctant sailor, is closer to nature aboard his warship than are the self-righteous backpackers. In the title story, Patty, a truly loathsome girl whom a young man named Nick brings to his familial house on the Chesapeake, can see the antiques there only as commodities to be marketed and reads (!) Derrida while Nick and his sister go for a sail; when Nick's father kicks her off the place, it's a victory for those who have an affinity for their natural surroundings over those who merely are poseurs.
In this title story as in each of the others, Tilghman celebrates life with a kind of joy rarely encountered in American writing these days, whether fiction or nonfiction. At the end of the title story Dan, the father, looks into the depths of his own life and finds them good, and the story ends on what can only be called a stirring note:
"He could not help the rising tide of joy that was coming to him. He was astonished by what had happened to him. By his life. By the work he had done, the wills, the clients, all of them so distant that he couldn't remember ever knowing them at all. By the wife he had loved, and lost on the main street of Easton, and by the women who had since then come in and out of his life, leaving marks and changes he'd never even bothered to notice. By the children he had fathered and raised, those children looking out from photographs over mounds of Christmas wrappings and up from the water's edge, smiles undarkened even by their mother's death. By his mistakes and triumphs, from the slap of a doctor's hand to the last bored spadeful of earth. It was all his, it all accumulated back toward him, toward his body, part of a journey back through the flesh to the seed where it started, and would end."
That is writing of exceptional strength, beauty, clarity and resonance. It is of a kind to be found on every page of "In a Father's Place," a genuinely remarkable book.