Comparison of Two Short Stories by Tobias Wolff Essay
Comparison of Two Short Stories by Tobias Wolff
From the weekend fishing trips to complete hatred and denial, father-son relationships can be characterized by many good and bad experiences. After reading the two short stories “Powder” by Tobias Wolff and “If the River was Whiskey” by T. C. Boyle, which both feature father-son relationships that are placed under a large amount of stress. There are many similarities and differences between these two relationships that are not apparent upon just a cursory glance. A father can be completely inconsiderate of his sons needs or try his best to meet them and still create turmoil within the relationship.
After reading Wolff’s short story “Powder,” one can conclude that the father tries quite hard to make his son happy. In this story the father takes the son to places the mother would not approve of in order to try and win his affection. Wolff states, “He’d had to fight for the privilege of my company, because my mother was still angry with him for sneaking me into a nightclub during his last visit, to see Thelonious Monk” (33). Taking his son to these places is his way of forming a father-son connection.
Not only does he take his son skiing, he fights his wife for the privilege, and when she disagrees he does it without her knowledge. While this strengthens the father-son relation, the husband-wife relation is weakened. In this case the father is trying more to be the best friend instead of a role model, and in doing so creates conflicts with his wife. This directly affects the son’s well being because what child would be happy to see his parents fighting. In Wolff’s story the father is displayed as being a risk-taker and borderline reckless.
This is where the father and son seem to clash in their relationship. Wolff writes, “I always thought ahead. I was a boy who kept his clothes on numbered hangers to insure proper rotation. I bothered my teachers for homework assignments far ahead of their due dates so I could draw up schedules” (36). Obviously, his father did not plan or think ahead, or he would have planned on leaving the ski lodge early in case they ran into trouble. When they got down the road, the trooper tells them that the road is blocked and the son became annoyed and frustrated with his father’s carelessness.
He says to his father “we should have left before” (35) This comment made his father feel inadequate, and he did not respond to it. His father’s recklessness directly affects their relationship. The boy is more like a man, and the father is more like a boy, showing the “adult” in a relationship is not always who it seems, but that people can learn about themselves by their relationships with others. The son was very uneasy and nervous when his father started driving down the snow covered road once the trooper left his post.
Wolff shows this when he writes “to keep my hands from shaking I clamped them between my knees” (35). The connection was restored between them when the child decided to stop moping and began to enjoy himself. The child says, “My father in his forty-eighth year, rumpled, kind, bankrupt of honor, flushed with certainty. He was a great driver. All persuasion, no coercion, such subtlety at the wheel, such tactful pedalwork. I actually trusted him” (37). This was a big turning point in their relationship because the child now sees greatness in his father that he had never seen before.
In Boyle’s short story, “If the River was Whiskey” the same rocky father-son relationship that slowly takes a turn for the better is displayed. The father in Boyle’s story is much worse than the one in Wolff’s story in that he is an alcoholic that did not spend much time with his son. While in Wolff’s story spending time with his son made the father feel good, all the father in Boyle’s story needed was alcohol to feel good, giving no attention to his son. The wife attacks the father by saying, “We’ve been here two weeks and you haven’t done one damn thing with him, nothing, zero.
You haven’t even been down to the lake. What kind of father are you? ” (231). Seeing his parents in such an argument affects the son by making him disconnected and hateful toward his father. When the son came home from school he would find his father “sitting in the dark, hair in his face, bent low over the guitar. There was an open bottle of liquor on the coffee table and a clutter of beer bottles” (231). Coming back to this dreary home life after school and seeing one’s father in this condition would be very traumatic.
It shows him that his father doesn’t care about his job and would rather be at home drinking while reminiscing about his past. The relationship between them finally took a turn for the better when his father put down the bottle and decides to go fishing with Tiller and spend some quality time with him. Boyle explains Tiller’s excitement by saying “It was too much for him all at once–the sun, the breeze that was so sweet, the novelty of his father rowing, pale arms and a cigarette clenched between his teeth, the boat rocking, and the birds whispering–he closed his eyes a minute, just to keep from going dizzy with the joy of it” (233).
At this point, one can see that Tiller’s feelings of hate toward his father are diminishing. His father’s attitude also seems to have changed because he is making a conscious effort to not drink and have a good time on the water. When his father finally hooked a fish on his line, it was perhaps the climax of their relationship. Boyle writes, “Tiller saw something in his eyes he hardly recognized anymore, a connection, a charge, as if the fish were sending a current up the line, through the pole, and into his hands and body and brain” (234).
That passage shows that Tiller actually felt him and his father finally connect. He describes it as hardly recognized because they had never really connected in this way before now. After his father pulled the fish up into the boat and Tiller realized it wasn’t a pike, “already the thing in his eyes was gone, already it was over” (234). This is where Tiller gets the feeling that his father had let him down as he always had before. The connection was once again lost. In both T. C. Boyle’s and Tobias Wolff’s stories the father’s actions create a direct reflection on their son. In T. C.
Boyle’s story the father does things that damage his other relationships to try and improve the one with his son, and this is shown to have an equally bad result for the son as the one in Tobias Wolff’s story. In both stories there is a critical element that seems to connect the father and son. In both Wolff and Boyle’s story the sight of ones father performing a certain action creates an exhilarating short lived connection. A father can be completely inconsiderate of his sons needs or try his best to meet them and still create turmoil within the relationship that is occasionally interrupted by a one of kind father-son connection.