With the deep emotion and insight of "a true storyteller" (Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times), Christopher Tilghman, the author of the acclaimed Mason's Retreat and In a Father's Place, has written a powerful new novel of men and women, fathers and families. Eric Alwin has gone to visit his elderly father, a once commanding and charismatic Maryland senator who has seen his public service soured-and his family broken-by a sex scandal. Realizing that his own unfaithfulness, his disaffection with his career and marriage, seem to be a continuation of a family pattern, Eric is astonished to find his father proposing a bold expedition. The ensuing trip through the Deep South and the American heartland becomes both a journey into the emotional truth of the Alwin family and a breakthrough into a new kind of resilience and understanding, and love. Along the way, Eric will know anew not only his mother, Audrey, but his sisters, Alice and Poppy, and his own wife and son.
A road trip turns into a vehicle for family redemption and reconciliation in Tilghman's heartfelt but clunky second novel (after 1996's Mason's Retreat), which revolves around the efforts of a dying Maryland politician to put his affairs in order. Eric Alwin is the narrator, a disaffected middle-aged New York ad man who spends his weekends in Maryland caring for his father, Frank, a former politician who can barely speak or move after a debilitating stroke. The road to Frank's demise takes a sharp turn when he demands that his son accompany him on a difficult drive to Alabama to present his apologies to his estranged ex-wife. The trip succeeds despite some rough moments, but Frank is determined to get through a similar agenda with other family members. Gathering passengers along the way, father and son finally end up in Columbus, Ohio, meeting yet another (unexpected) relative. The concept of road trip as catharsis and reconciliation works well in the early going, but as the book progresses, the geographical structure makes the novel read like an awkward emotional travelogue, and the writing lapses into mawkish melodrama ("What is forgiveness Is it choosing to ignore and overlook Water under the dam Is it a test, or an embrace "). Tilghman injects little fresh life into his well-worn conceit. Agent, Maxine Groffsky. (July 20) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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July 22, 2004
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Excerpt from Roads of the Heart by Christopher Tilghman
The sound his father had made was "mop-jeck," or perhaps "mott-seck."
"I'm sorry " Eric leaned forward. He was sitting on the edge of a hospital bed, a wood-grained model that the man from the rental company had suggested for a "gentleman's d ' cor"; his left buttock was asleep. They were speaking over the insistent tinny hum of an electric space heater. They were sitting in his father's bookish study. Outside the door, the grandfather clock ticked. His father was installed in his wingback chair, which was where he always spent most of these Sunday afternoons, resting after the exertions of church. He had a steel hospital bed table drawn tight in front of him, as if to keep him from pitching forward. He had been listening quietly as Eric did the usual: emptied his mind of news, whatever stray bits, factoids, and epiphanies he could conjure out of the gray background of his suburban life. It was like chanting, this largely one-way form of conversing, an exercise in the free-ranging self-examination one might engage in while praying, or on an analyst's couch. Unless his father grabbed the bait on a certain subject, Eric would just keep tossing out the line.
It was a dreary March day, casting the kind of spiritual light that seems to illuminate one's vague fears and concealed regrets. That was the sort of thing Eric had been speaking about, whether he and Gail had made the right choices; whether their son, Tom, blamed him for his uncertain start in life; whether happiness is something you earn and whether unhappiness is a punishment for your sins. It was an odd, rather Calvinistic line for Eric to take: he had erred enough in life not to seek that sort of scorekeeping.
"Mottsecks," his father said again, working his mouth around its hurried emptiness.
Eric's father, Frank Alwin, had been a handsome man with a thin and craggy face, a serious nose and strong chin. He was tall and, though quite slender, had always given the impression of power: a gangly welterweight who might still deliver a brutal punch. He had been a dairy farmer of sorts, enough to give him troublesome skin and a penetrating, sun-narrowed scowl, but his real career had been as a state senator in his native Maryland, a career that he conspired to the level of majority leader before his enemies' plots and his own deep character flaws brought him to his knees. Since then, age and physical calamities had ravaged his body: it was hard to think of any major medical event he had not been through, even if the Big One still seemed well in the future. But because he had lost so much of the use of his body, his eyes could seem almost magical in their ability to communicate, as if his soul had moved from his damaged heart and scrambled brain and taken up residence on those surfaces; the eyes, moist and youthful, quick as cats. Still, when a word is needed, even magic cannot replace it. It mattered to Frank, this ragged verbal fragment, and he looked at Eric desperately but not hopelessly, as if by trying once more, he could make the air in his voicebox behave itself and produce the sounds he imagined so precisely. He pointed his thumb back at his chest and said it again. "Mottsecks. Me."
Eric had long ago devised an expression for times like this, when the word mattered. It was what one does with a friend who stutters, a look of support and patience, a calming and confident arching of the eyebrows, a face frozen, ready to reanimate as soon as the battle in the mouth's soft tissue was done.