Review by B. Drew Collier
With "Tines", Bittner squeezes Oedipal conflict, a broken marriage, and even post World War II cultural rivalry into a self-reflexive, bourgeois coming-of-age story.
On the surface of "Tines", the narrator flirts with the memory of a Thanksgiving long past, his younger-self eagerly awaiting a visit from his father. However, it's clear from the opening lines, "he's not here now; he wasn't here then," that there's more to this memory than a straight recollection of a boyhood holiday dinner.
The boy and his sister, Alice, attempt to preserve a tenuous cease-fire between their parents--whose marital discord plays out in snipes and smirks--with signs the children taped to the wall declaring, "humor needs sarcasm like a live turkey needs stuffing." On the dinner table, the dishes stand like opposing armies; rotkohl and sauerkraut face off against selyodka and pirozhki, while two bottles of wine, a pepper mill, and a candelabrum interpose themselves "like a happy Maginot Line (and every bit as porous)." The shifting tension evokes tangible unease as the husband and wife spar with words and glances, their exchanges like the last ragged shots in a forgotten war. After eating in strained silence, the boy and his father face-off over the last piece of goose on the table, the tines of their forks like the teeth of angry lions.
The twist in the story comes without much of a setup. Is it too sudden? Perhaps that's a matter of personal taste. There's only one serious problem with this story: too much "look at me" in the structure when it ought to settle down and quietly hold the story together. The frame within a frame within a frame trips on its own convolutions, to the point that Bittner makes a glaring error in his shifting tense.
Despite this flaw, it's easy to get lost in the depth of detail Bittner manages to fit into such a short piece--a coat "worn gray in spots where it should be black" or each slice of butterbrötchen "standing like a smart little ship," all gripped within a taut fist of emotion.