Christopher Tilghman is hopelessly out of step with the times. I mean that as a compliment. In a publishing environment that seems fixated on attention-getting ploys and high concept, Tilghman persists in writing the kind of fiction we’re all supposedly too busy to read — unhurried, carefully observed, 100 percent gimmick-free stories steeped in an old-fashioned brew of local tradition, family history and natural landscape. Not that there’s anything quaint about his work; he is no Charles Kuralt, nostalgically celebrating the virtues of small-town folks. But while other serious writers seem focused on the noise and rootlessness of contemporary life, Tilghman writes about people who are still profoundly affected by the quiet pull of the past.
In “The Way People Run,” his subtle and unassuming second collection of short stories, Tilghman returns to some of the locales that made his earlier work so memorable. Again he evokes these places — most vividly, Maryland’s Eastern Shore — with a patience that seems at odds with the usual short-story aesthetic of extreme concision. (Even Chekhov might have moved things along a little faster.) But while Tilghman’s protagonists, who typically come from old families with ties to the land, may seem more grounded than most characters in fiction today, they all suffer from a very modern case of alienation. As the book’s title suggests, they are people in a state of constant emotional flight, overwhelmed by the expectations of others. But since they at least know what they’re running from — families, mansions, the people they are supposed to be — their anxieties are anything but free-floating.
Time and again in these stories, characters find themselves torn between the competing forces of autonomy and family, detachment and responsibility. In the excellent title story, Barry, a recently unemployed Wall Streeter, is driving around the American West while his wife and children wait for him at home. He’s ostensibly exploring the old haunts of his dead grandfather — a man who years earlier walked out on his job and family without warning — but what Barry really hopes to find is an explanation of his own need to abandon the life that’s defined him. In “A Suitable Good-bye,” meanwhile, a New Yorker named Lee accompanies his mother on a family mission to find his grandfather’s grave. In his mother’s eyes, Lee is the worrisome member of the family — the unmarried, cynical child who always comes last and leaves first at family events: “He knew something about the hollowness, about the loneliness of departure, driving away from home gatherings into frosty purple mornings while his mother, and his siblings, and his in-laws slept, a flippant note of good-bye left in front of the toaster.” Here again, though, the real purpose of the journey is more insidious: This trip is actually his mother’s attempt to rescue Lee, to return him to the family and to the idea of attachment itself.
If there is a flaw in these stories, it’s their tendency toward earnestness. There are times — as in the collection’s last story, “Things Left Undone” — when I would welcome a drop or two of irony in the narration, no matter how tragic the story being told. Tilghman’s straight-faced approach can sometimes give the stories a Hemingwayesque solemnity (“They both looked at her hand, big, strong, a mother’s hand,” etc.) that’s just a little too easy to lampoon. But this is only a sporadic problem. For the most part, these are stories with substance to them — stories with the courage to try for something so unfashionable as wisdom.