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Roads of the Heart: A Novel

Roads of the Heart: A Novel

4.0 1
by Christopher Tilghman

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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


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. As he discovers the surprising secret behind the scandal that defined his father’s fate, he will also realize what he must do to shape a more authentic and coherent life for himself.

Christopher Tilghman’s Roads of the Heart is a brilliant achievement by an author who, grappling with the strains and discords of contemporary American culture, achieves a special understanding of how family members love and lose and find one another every day.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Christopher Tilghman is such a smart and honest writer–so forgiving and so knowing about all that people do that requires forgiveness–that it’s possible to enter his stories fully, without really noticing the clarity, intelligence and supple strength of his sentences, until you find them with you, weeks later.”
–Amy Bloom

“Once again, Chris Tilghman displays his talent for plumbing the depths of family life and for showing just how hard how it can be to escape the past, both our own and our family's. Roads of the Heart is a richly imagined, beautifully written, deeply affecting novel."
–Margot Livesey

"Roads of the Heart glows, both with Christopher Tilghman's beautiful language, and with his graceful, compassionate meditations on the family. I found myself re-reading these sentences, just for the pleasures of the prose. Wise, tender and illuminating, this book delivers pleasures on many levels, and lingers in the mind long after it has been closed."
–Roxana Robinson

Jonathan Yardley
Tilghman deals in truths, and he's drawn to hard ones. He writes about families -- the best of all subjects, endlessly interesting, endlessly elusive -- and in particular about fathers and sons.
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
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.
Library Journal
It's been a bad decade or so for ex-Maryland senator Frank Alwin: first, he is expelled from office, and his marriage is wrecked by-what else?-a sex scandal; then, he suffers a stroke that renders speech difficult and immobilizes one side of his body. Lately reconciled with his son, Eric, who has marriage and career problems of his own, Frank and his caretaker, Adam, hatch a plan for a trip with Eric to make up for all of Frank's "mottsecks" (mistakes). Thus begins one of the stranger road books in recent memory, with stops in Alabama (ex-wife), New Orleans, Texas (estranged gay daughter), Colorado (Eric's semi-estranged son), and, finally (with this whole entourage, minus the ex-wife, plus a daughter and Eric's wife), Ohio, where they pick up a fourth sibling unknown to the others, from Frank's affair. Tilghman (The Way People Run) captures the nuances of both landscape and character, and if it can be a little slow at times, this journey of reconciliation and atonement is worth it in the end. For medium to large fiction collections.-Robert E. Brown, Minoa Lib., NY Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Tilghman (The Way People Run, 1999, etc.) returns to the subject of the nature of family in this tale about a less-than-perfect father who, approaching death, sets out to correct the damage he's done to his loved ones. Former Maryland state senator Frank Alwin is one of those larger-than-life characters whose appetites and ambition have wreaked havoc on his family and himself. His first wife, the mother of his son and two daughters, left him when she could no longer live with the humiliation of his womanizing. His career fell apart when the state attorney general learned from an unknown source that Frank was using staffing money to pay off "a bimbo." Now an aging stroke victim, Frank convinces his son Eric to take him on a car expedition to make final amends. Eric, who's given up his early scholarly ambition to run an ad agency, has marital and career difficulties of his own. His wife is threatening to leave him, he foolishly sleeps with one of his employees and then ends it badly, his partner and some of his best staff are bolting from the agency. Nevertheless, Eric sets out with Frank and his nurse on what turns out to be a trip into the past. Frank makes peace not only with Eric's mother, but also with Eric's younger sister Poppy, who turns out to be the one who revealed Frank's misdeed to the authorities as revenge for his emotional abandonment. Then comes the revelation of, and reconciliation with, Frank's illegitimate son by the bimbo. By the time Frank's health gives out, the family has found a new balance, and Eric has reunited with his wife and saved his company. The resolutions come improbably easily, considering the amount of angst that preceded them. Lots of musing but verylittle action. Agent: Maxine Groffsky/Maxine Groffsky Literary Agency

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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5.19(w) x 7.94(h) x 0.54(d)

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Roads of the Heart

By Christopher Tilghman

Random House

Copyright (C) 2004 by Christopher Tilghman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0679457801

Chapter One


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 décor”; 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.

“Shit,” Frank said. Some years ago he had “plateaued,” as the speech therapists put it, but short words beginning with sibilants had always been easy. “Help.”

“Was it something I said?”

Frank sighed, deep with the frustration that would never be lifted. His blue eyes became moister. This state was actually not so new for him: his emotions had always been too big for him to contain: passions had led him astray; his softheartedness had caused him to hurt people. Tough on the outside; putty in the middle. That’s what had taken Eric most of his fifty-plus years to figure out about this man, a man who never admitted his faults, never apologized, seemed never to feel an ounce of guilt. “Don’t explain; don’t apologize”: that had been his unofficial creed in his political life. A typical postwar man, not one of a “greatest generation” but a human being deformed by history: that’s what Eric had initially concluded back when he used it as a reason for damnation. He had since rediscovered this explanation as a reason to forgive. But it all, the deformation and the subsequent charade, had to have taken a toll; none of it was natural. Eric had been assuming that for years now, inside, his father was bleeding from the wounds.

For a moment it seemed Frank would try the word again, his face tensing for the effort, but then he gave up. “Shit,” he said again. “Skip it.”

“No. Let’s get it. I’ve got time.” Eric tried not to wince as a sudsy mid-Atlantic storm began to splatter against the windows. The drive back up the New Jersey Turnpike in this slush would be hell; he imagined a wreck somewhere near the Cherry Hill water tower that would back up traffic all the way to the Delaware Memorial Bridge. It was Sunday. He always made these trips on Sunday, the day one finally has to make good on everything procrastinated on through the week and weekend.

Frank shook his head but mouthed the damnable word again; his lips were loose and rubbery. Two syllables, soft at the beginning. Sometimes these clues meant something; sometimes they didn’t. “Grammy,” Eric said, an impulse. It didn’t sound anything like the word, but earlier they had been looking at a picture of his grandmother, who had been dead for forty years. Frank had been organizing old photographs, his latest project. “Garden,” said Eric, momentarily caught on words that began with “G.” It was probably time to order seeds, not that the vegetable and flower gardens on the place had ever been of interest to Frank. Gardens were something imposed on the place, and on Frank, by Alice, his elder daughter.

“No, no, no.” Frank pounded his hospital table in frustration, but the attempt came out this time as a plea. “Mottsecks. Help.”

Eric tried to recall exactly what he had been saying when his father interrupted, an impossible task since he was only rarely aware of what was coming out of his mouth in these conversations. From visit to visit he could rattle on at length about almost nothing: who would have thought to tell his elderly father about his neighbor’s new dog, how the housebreaking was going, the installation of an invisible fence? This could be an effective kind of torture, like riding coast to coast in an airplane with one of those people who like people. It reminded Eric of the patient-sitting jobs he used to get at the Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital in Hanover, New Hampshire, back during Gail and his fling as rural hippies. Companionship during the long deep hours of the night was the point, but the patients were mostly cancer-ridden old farmers, and Eric was a hippie with long hair and a beard, and he believed that fertilizer was poison, that mechanized farming was evil, that the world was running out of oil anyway.

Off in the house, he could hear Adam Miller making tea. It was an odd arrangement, by Eastern Shore standards, a man as a nurse and a housekeeper for a gentleman; not quite right. What sort of man would do that work, Eric himself asked when Alice proposed Adam almost two years ago.

“What is that supposed to mean,” she snapped back. “Are you asking if he’s gay?” Alice liked to get to the heart of things, although the real person she was defending was their younger sister, Poppy, who was gay and lived in Houston.

Eric wasn’t asking that and he had never done anything in his life but support Poppy. She was the lost baby, the one they all loved best. “I’m just making sure you checked him out,” he said to Alice.

Alice didn’t answer. Of course she had done everything but hire a private detective.

“What does Dad think of him?” asked Eric.

“I don’t think Dad has that much of a choice.”


“I think he liked him.”

And so he did. It was Adam who helped Frank get started in the morning, tied his neckties, faced the daily task of giving him speech, filling in the blanks, writing the letters, making the telephone calls. Frank seemed to accept from the beginning that a man who had been married twice, divorced bitterly by the first—the mother of his children—and widowed by his second, and who had behaved wretchedly to both, probably should end up largely in the company of men. Ever since Marjorie, his second wife, had died of cancer, that’s the way his life had been anyway.

Eric gave his father what he hoped was a sympathetic smile and was met by a shrug. “What a bummer,” Eric said. The wind rattled the windows; the chill seeped into the room.

“Don’t know.” It came out “Du-now.” He meant, as he had previously been able to make clear, that after more than ten years of this he’d come to believe that an inability to speak was an affliction only his God could have served up as a test, a punishment, a preparation for the eternal fire. He did not like others, especially his son, dismissing his own private destiny—brutal as it was—as merely bad luck, simply a weak fitting in his brain plumbing.

“Sure,” Eric said. “Sorry.”

A shrug again, this one delivered with forgiveness, a gentle narrowing of the eyes.

“Want to try to write it?” Eric leaned forward to move the pad on the table under his father’s good hand. Sometimes this worked, but the letters and sounds were just as likely to become scrambled; his hand had deserted him as much as his tongue. Language was now a befuddlement to his whole body.

Frank picked up the pencil, fixed it against his thumb with three fingers as people writing with the wrong hand will do, but then put it down. He raised his bushy eyebrows as a joke. It meant he had given up.

This angered Eric, this luxury of powerlessness. Frank had made this precise gesture long before his strokes, back when he had made a good mess of something, let his children or his wives down, broken his public trust. Powerless in the face of what? His own character? Seeing it, Eric was suddenly back in the heat of older battles with his father, battles not so much won or lost as abandoned in a decisive draw and years of silence. And he was back in his private battles against his own repetition of these faults, his own weaknesses, his own willingness to leave important things undone in the name of what . . . peace? He could see his own eyebrows arching like that: an iterative curse. More and more, these days, as he looked into the mirror, unshaven in the morning, he saw his father’s face staring back.

This is the nature of family, after all, a certain compression of time, a simultaneity: all family joys in a single flutter of the heart; every woe dripping through a single unhealed wound, a fear that to fix any one piece of it, you have to fix it all.

“Is it Maryland? Are you talking about the state?”

“No. No. No.”

Eric drew the letters “M-O-T-T-S-E-C-K” on the pad and circled the “M.” “Is this right? Does it start with M?”


Normally, one might think they were getting somewhere. The problem was that yes could sometimes mean no. No was more reliable—that made its own sense: so much easier to express what he didn’t want than what he did; so much easier to send a dish back to the kitchen than to make it clear what he really wanted. But no was not unfailingly accurate.

“Mike? Mike Greer?” Mike was the plumber in town. It wasn’t right, but Eric was strangely unable to think of relevant or likely words that started with “M.” Mirage. Marriage. Million. Makeshift. Masterpiece. Montana. He didn’t even offer one of those, even though the thought of being on a two days’ hike into Glacier National Park was attractive. Frank was tired out by now, anyway. But the truth was, Frank never really gave up on a word even if others had. In a day or two, or in a few weeks, he might find a picture to point to, or Adam would draw one, or the word itself would emerge from those damaged lips, perfect as a newborn unscarred from its tortured birth. But lately Eric had begun to doubt that everything his father wanted to express was getting out. If the word were a thing, the thing would be found; if it were an errand or a deed, one of them would figure out what it was, all of it being fairly predictable. But what of his father’s thoughts, what of the existential? As Eric had tried to suggest to his sister Alice, even if she did not share Eric’s taste for literature, what of Wallace Stevens’s pressure on the heart of the inexpressible? “Sure. Sure,” said Alice, wary of poetry. But what late-life wisdom or reflection might his father have to share but be unable to express? He was eighty-two now, and despite his apparent indestructibility, he wasn’t going to live forever. It could be like this “mottseck” at the end, the small gathering at the bedside, the various families leaning forward to record the last utterance, only to dissolve into grotesque slapstick: “Did he say ‘glyfith’?” “No, I heard ‘glowforth,’ you know, ‘Go forth.’ ” “You’re all wrong. It was ‘Glaswirst.’ I heard it plain as day. He was asking for a glass of water.”

The door opened and Adam burst in with his tea tray. He was a big man, tall as Frank but much broader, with the sloping shoulders, heavy neck, and round close-cropped head of an athlete. His powerful physique made his talent and commitment to caregiving all the more appealing. On his time off he might well have been a weightlifter or a bruising attackman in the adult lacrosse leagues, but Eric knew nothing of Adam’s private life.

When Adam started working for Frank he had worn white nursing clothes, but within days had understood that this wasn’t necessary or even desired. Now he wore his own uniform, jeans and a sweatshirt, with a fanny pack full of Frank’s necessities: spare reading glasses, medications, pens, and a small steno pad for jotting down notes, or making pictures, or writing words.


Excerpted from Roads of the Heart by Christopher Tilghman Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

CHRISTOPHER TILGHMAN is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Whiting Writer’s Award, and the Ingram Merrill Foundation Award. His other books include Mason’s Retreat and In a Father’s Place. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker. He is a tenured professor and teaches writing at the University of Virginia.

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Roads of the Heart 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is high-quality reading that touches the emotions without giving them much of a workout. The writing is spare but attentive to detail. As someone who has lived in or spent significant amounts of time in all of these places, I felt transported by the narrative. And I think the author accomplished the near- impossible feat of getting me invested in the lives of characters whom I initially didn't like much. I believe he hasn't received the attention he deserves.-- catwak