Characters

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Last Updated on May 20, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1209

James Wood, editor for The New Republic , has commented that Stone's male characters are "halved, severed, emotionally divorced. Certainly his men feel alone," and Stone has supported this view with his own description of these men as "lost" and of his intention to write stories because "We can't identify...

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James Wood, editor for The New Republic, has commented that Stone's male characters are "halved, severed, emotionally divorced. Certainly his men feel alone," and Stone has supported this view with his own description of these men as "lost" and of his intention to write stories because "We can't identify ourselves without them." His basic approach is to frame the question "Who do we think we are" in terms of the predicament that his protagonist faces, and to follow through circumstances of dramatic intensity or duress the manner in which the character reaches toward some kind of comprehension, if not an answer or resolution to the query. This process is especially well illustrated by the story "Helping" in which the reader is essentially located within the flow of consciousness of a man in middle-age who has kept various demons (alcoholism, anger, self-loathing, cruelty) under control for more than a year but who is very close to unleashing them all.

Elliot, a counselor in a state hospital, knows what he should do in most situations but has strong inclinations to act otherwise in spite of the consequences. Stone's intention is to make Elliot sympathetic and distasteful simultaneously, just as Elliot sees himself, and to trace Elliot's wayward course between incidents of harmful behavior and moments of minor valor. The ominous mood at the story's start, "One gray November day," with "wet streets cold and lonely" puts Elliot's fragile sobriety at risk immediately, and a succession of dispiriting encounters destroys it. "Disproportionately angry," Elliot passes a saloon and feels "childlike expectation" and that he has "encountered possibility." His wife is distraught at his return to alcohol, and Elliot is consumed by regret but energized sufficiently to snarl at one of his wife's clinging, parasitical clients and to unsettle a smug neighbor with bizarre antics. Although he is "tired of pain, anger and confusion," the liquor has given him "a perverse lucidity," and although Elliot knows that the aftermath of his actions will be "damn little justice and no mercy" (practically a protagonist faces, and to follow through circumstances of dramatic intensity or duress the manner in which the character reaches toward some kind of comprehension, if not an answer or resolution to the query. This process is especially well illustrated by the story "Helping" in which the reader is essentially located within the flow of consciousness of a man in middle-age who has kept various demons (alcoholism, anger, self-loathing, cruelty) under control for more than a year but who is very close to unleashing them all.

Elliot, a counselor in a state hospital, knows what he should do in most situations but has strong inclinations to act otherwise in spite of the consequences. Stone's intention is to make Elliot sympathetic and distasteful simultaneously, just as Elliot sees himself, and to trace Elliot's wayward course between incidents of harmful behavior and moments of minor valor. The ominous mood at the story's start, "One gray November day," with "wet streets cold and lonely" puts Elliot's fragile sobriety at risk immediately, and a succession of dispiriting encounters destroys it. "Disproportionately angry," Elliot passes a saloon and feels "childlike expectation" and that he has "encountered possibility." His wife is distraught at his return to alcohol, and Elliot is consumed by regret but energized sufficiently to snarl at one of his wife's clinging, parasitical clients and to unsettle a smug neighbor with bizarre antics. Although he is "tired of pain, anger and confusion," the liquor has given him "a perverse lucidity," and although Elliot knows that the aftermath of his actions will be "damn little justice and no mercy" (practically a motto for the characters in the world of Stone's stories), his need for an escape from the routine rut of his life has almost justified his actions. In an ambiguous but not entirely negative conclusion, Elliot returns home to see his wife waiting for him, "trembling at the window." His last thoughts are "to hope for forgiveness." Whether he deserves it, or will know it remains uncertain, but the image of hope is the author's gift to a character he wants to help.

Stone neither condemns nor condones the behavior of most of his main characters. He is interested in their choices and is certainly sympathetic about their attempts to overcome their feelings of helplessness or weakness. One of their more striking attributes is a spirit of resistance akin to the rage Elliot feels, a refusal to let themselves be beaten when it would be easier to declare psychic bankruptcy. Liam Blessington in "Under the Pitons" finds the will to overcome fatigue and reach shore; Mary Urquhart in "Miserere" rebounds from monumental loss to challenge the established church and give strength to others; Will and Rowan Smart in "Bear and His Daughter" are ready to destroy themselves before compromising their beliefs or making some accommodation to stupidity. The stubborn, almost perverse unreasonableness of these people is a part of their appeal, and if their actions seem to be excessive, Stone has surrounded them with a gallery of totally objectionable minor characters whose loathsome attributes require extreme measures.

In every story there is at least one repulsive figure. Mary Urquhart has to deal with a priest she sees as "the reeking model of every Jew-baiting, clerical fascist murderer"; Mackay in "Absence of Mercy" fights for his life on a subway platform with a lunatic; Liam Blessington is trapped on a cruise with homicidal drug-runners. Alison in "Aquarius Obscured" is living with a zonked-out, sponging, control freak. Stone's presentation of these people is direct and unsubtle, still convincing even if they are props. He feels so strongly about the ugliness they represent that he has let strong description stand for a more complex depiction, yet he has mixed his distaste with a dash of dry humor, so that the potentially dangerous and very unpleasant companions Fletch travels with in "Porque No Tiene, Porque Le Falta" reveal the emptiness of their manipulations by the strained, exhausted manner of their speech—an unconscious parody of what passed for cutting-edge style in the mid- 1960's but which sounds like the garbled babble of a man caught in a time warp decades later.

The appropriation of the language of self-realization therapy by one of Elliot's patients in "Helping" is another example of Stone's sardonic portrayal of social patterns tending toward disintegration, as are the philosophic ruminations of the "porpoise" in "Aquarius Obscured" who sounds like a cult leader with the intimidating quasi-logical discourse he employs to frighten and subjugate Alison. When a character speaks with clarity in a language that seems entirely his or her own, as is the case with Rowan Smart and her friend John Hears the Sun Come Up (his name reflecting his Shoshone heritage) in "Bear and His Daughter," their obvious self-awareness and intelligence sets them apart from the clearly sinister and generally unpleasant people in the stories, and more significantly, from the "lost" men in Stone's world. They are a part of the next generation, and while their prospects are not any more promising, the shift in sensibility marked by the different modes of their speech suggest that they might be able to establish a more tangible connection with the elements in American culture that Stone admires.

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