Thursday, February 08, 2018

"Helping" (1987)

Read story by Robert Stone online.

Robert Stone's story is an absurdist and vaguely comical tale of an alcoholic relapse. It's gnawing at something deeper, but I'm not sure I know what that is any better than the two central characters, Chas Elliott and his wife Grace. He is a social worker giving in to burnout. She is a Child Protective Services lawyer. She wants to help but needs the layer of legal formalities to shield her from raw human drama. Chas is also a Vietnam veteran. At this point, I'm tired of Vietnam veterans and recovering alcoholic stories. I appreciate that the focus here is on the relapse, as that is one of the hardest and most mysterious sides of addiction and recovery. But I don't think it has much more to offer than the usual self-dramatizations. There are some exchanges between Chas and Grace that are bitter and caustic, but not particularly believable. They seem too disconnected from their evident rage, too poised and cool and articulate. The drama of alcoholism was popular and widely embraced in the '80s. We saw another example in a story earlier in this collection, Richard Bausch's "All the Way in Flagstaff, Arizona," which I didn't find much more convincing than this. Partly it's the literary aspects, so deliberately thought through, such as the many meanings and tones of the one-word title in the Stone story (or the parallel ambiguities of using "in" instead of "to" in the Bausch). Am I saying they're too good to be good? Well, yes, in a way. The drama in "Helping" is strange and hard to understand from the outside looking in, which is where Stone puts us. The attitudes of Chas—you can't understand if you're not a Vietnam veteran and/or recovering alcoholic—are difficult to separate from Stone's, if indeed they are different at all. They probably are. The two novels by Stone that I know—Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise—are very good as I recall. And "Helping" is obviously worked over and thought through to an admirable degree. I'm just not sure that the drama of alcoholism (which more and more seems to me related to narcissistic disorders) offers enough to support the long and artful exercise of this story.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

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