May 07, 1990 12:00 PM

by Christopher Tilghman

Geographically, the short stories in this debut collection range all over the place, from the Chesapeake Bay (where a 12-year-old boy sees his father kill a man) to South Dakota (where a young man sets out in pursuit of his pregnant wife, who has left him and their four children).

In terms of mood and evocative precision of language, however, the seven stories have much in common. The mood is deliberate and almost supernaturally calm, even as Tilghman’s characters confront decisive moments in their lives with varying mixtures of courage, humor and resignation. The language is economical without being spare. In “Hole in the Day,” the story about the fleeing wife, the husband finds temporary homes for three of his children but has to take his 2-year-old son along on the chase. At one point they stop so Grant, the father, can give the child a bath in the men’s room sink at a gas station: “Grant has never before seen how that skin shines like silk. He traces a line down the flexing back and it feels like powder. Grant uses every muscle and nerve ending in his own body, as if keeping the baby from falling is the one job in his whole life that truly matters.”

Tilghman, 44, a former Navy officer who lives near Boston, co-manages a dairy farm and does corporate copywriting. He has two sons himself, and the relationships between children and parents are often the definitive quantities in these stories. They are relationships that in some ways represent a unique emotional dimension, as elemental as time and space—and as baffling.

Children also seem crucial in the hopefulness Tilghman’s characters often cling to. So it’s not surprising when in “A Gracious Rain,” a Queensville, Md., man who dies finds himself conscious and able to observe the effects of his own death: “He had expected to have so much answered by now, either in the darkness of the void or in the light of eternity. Instead…he had been spared once again, spared the end of doubt, preserved from eternal rest.” (Farrar Straus Giroux. $18.95)

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