“Helping” follows Charles “Chas” Elliot, a sensitive, sardonic Vietnam veteran prone to alcoholic binges when he is frustrated or angry, through a time in his life when his marriage, job, and social interactions have fused into a flux of turmoil and disappointment. The omniscient narrative operates primarily as an unfolding present, with long passages of dialogue illuminating Elliot’s evolving psychological response to the circumstances of his life. The stresses he feels have led to a return to the alcoholic escapism that he has previously managed partially to control.
As the narrative begins, Elliot has been attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous for fifteen months, maintaining a fragile sobriety. His resolve is tested by sudden perceptions of ways in which his plans have been thwarted and by moments of keen awareness of aspects of the natural world that tend to unsettle his mental equilibrium. Nonetheless, he is able to control himself until a client named Blankenship, a thief, liar, and leech, arrives at the state hospital for counseling.
Following a particularly enraging session with Blankenship, Elliot leaves the hospital feeling anxious and impatient. He stops at the local library, but his conversation with Candace, a good friend and amateur Greek scholar, fails to cheer him. Returning to an old pattern of behavior, he buys a bottle of Scotch, and in a mood mingling expectation and apprehension, he stops at a familiar tavern. His drive home is conducted in a mood of “baroque ecstasy, swinging and swaying and singing along,” and when his wife realizes that he has been drinking, Elliot’s forced humor juxtaposed with her distress reduces his euphoric state to one of defensive contrition. The tension between them escalates into a lacerating verbal exchange, suspended when one of Grace’s recalcitrant clients phones the house. Elliot picks up the phone and unleashes a justifiable barrage of invective at the abusive caller, resulting in a cursing spree that leads to Elliot settling in the darkened living room with a bottle and a shotgun.
The next morning, Elliot sets out across a snow-covered field, carrying the shotgun, a massive hangover, and a heavy burden of...
(The entire section is 539 words.)