IN A FATHER'S PLACE. By Christopher Tilghman, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 214 pp., $18.95 CHRISTOPHER TILGHMAN has been writing these stories since he got out of the Navy in 1971. He's also worked as a carpenter and corporate newsletter writer; he's gotten married and had children. These stories reek experience.
Tilghman is now over 40. ``In a Father's Place'' is his first book. It sounds, however, like a last book - seven stories sifting spiritual from ephemeral things. There's also Tilghman's rhetoric. No plastic-spastic postmodern prose for him: He plays the whole piano. Tilghman listens to his sentences, his paragraphs, until he hears the inner shape, then shows it. The sound completes the meaning.
Another thing: These stories are about families. That is, they are about fathers, mothers, and children. They are about memories and places, about homes.
In the first story, ``On the Rivershore,'' a boy sees his father kill a man with a .22-caliber gun, a man who had been verbally abusing his mother.
In the last story, ``Mary in the Mountains,'' a lone woman writes a letter to her former husband, who has just written to her about his first child, the child she could not have.
Tilghman makes no apologies for the emotional scope of his stories. On the contrary, he takes risks; one thinks of great Southern writers - Faulkner, O'Connor, Percy - who also plunged into the beyond. But his stories, like theirs, grow from soil rich in perception. Tilghman has tracked the senses for years, noticing how they carry information, how they interpenetrate. Synesthesia is not too big a word for some of his effects - ``the electric blue snap of the welder sparking deep in the shadows.''
Tilghman is wonderful with children. ``Hole in the Day'' is about a baby accompanying his father to find Lonnie, wife and mother. This baby loves to see the big trucks file down the passes in Montana. ``Turk,'' he sings: ``Turk.''
In ``A Gracious Rain,'' we see the children of Stan and Beth run through the gamut of emotions at the wake of their father, who has died suddenly at work one day. The story seems nearly perfect. Stan was a quiet, thoughtful man in life, and he's the same in death. Tilghman manages the transition from this character's life to his afterlife without skipping a beat.
These stories about fathers feature strong women. In ``Norfolk, 1969,'' notable for its evocation of life on a huge Navy vessel, a young married couple go their own ways. No adultery. She's on shore and gets involved in antiwar activism; he's on the high seas. Experience proves stronger than love.
The title story, ``In a Father's Place,'' recreates the Civil War. A Chesapeake Bay mansion is invaded by grown children and a girlfriend, Patty Keith. She is the terror of the Columbia University English department, an arrogant radical with an eye for antiques. The father is sure she's a witch. As soon as he gets a chance, he throws her out. Seductive in her own way, Patty Keith is not the last word on the untameable woman.
The final story recapitulates the book: past and present alternate, father exerts authority, the promise of family life divides as well as unites. ``Mary in the Mountains'' moves from place to place, from New Hampshire to Boston to Paris to Wellesley, Mass. Mary is writing a letter to her ex-husband. She writes with the vehemence of Sylvia Plath and the aching wisdom of Emily Dickinson. The narrative shifts between letter writing and memories (the memories are in italics), with recollections as lucid as a dream.
Tilghman's eloquent stories are works of intelligence, craft, and time. They deal with topics that are so charged today as to be labeled ``political:'' patriarchy, abortion, family tradition, class tension, religious belief, and the divine. But they deal with these topics wisely, through art making them transparent for meanings beyond them.
Taken together these stories bear witness to the ancient truth that man's happiness lies beyond self. These stories grow on one. We need companions such as these.