Sunday, January 22, 2017
Robert Stone's story Helping is a good intro to American fiction of the 1980s
I'm sure I've read Robert Stone's story Helping before (not too many stories whose protagonist shares my somewhat unusual name) and sometime fairly recently - not when it was first published in about 1987 - perhaps someone reprinted it when Stone died in 2015? - but oddly I can find no reference to the story elsewhere in this blog, which is a pretty solid reference to everything I've read over the past 7+ years, so you've got me. In any event, the story appears in the collection 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, and it makes for a good entry point into Stone's work and into the fiction in America in the 1980s. This story is about a Viet Nam veteran living in central Massachusetts and working for the state (or county) as a counselor; on this particular bleak, snowy winter Friday he's treating a difficult patient who claims to have Viet Nam stress flashbacks, though he never served in the war, all of which angers to protag (Elliot) and sends him eventually on a bender. His wife, a lawyer for the state who protects the rights of abused children, has lost a case to a group of scary rug addict bikers, who call the house with threats; Elliot responds in kind, leading to a tense standoff, as he drinks heavily through the night and awaits their arrival on his remote land, shotgun ready. The story has the tough-guy, sharp-edged dialog of so many male writers in that time, all following the lead of the great Raymond Carver (and before that, Hemingway): short sentences, sometimes disjunctive and clashing w/ preceding sentences and observation, the sense that the narrator or in this case protagonist is on an Odyssey of sorts but in a downward spiral rather than a return to home; damaged characters, too much Rx and drinking, working-class themes, remote (often Western) settings. Most typical of all - the dramatic action leading all too often, as in Helping, to a freeze-frame moment (perhaps inspired by French New Wave cinema) rather than to a real culmination, catastrophe, or epiphany. I'm with this story all the way, it's tense and dramatic, but I also feel a little let down by the end, which leaves us guessing, wondering, not fully satisfied.