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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In an observation similar to others that Robert Stone has made in various interviews, he mentioned seeing a famous writer “drunk and pissed off, a situation I understand very well.” Stone’s interest in the nature of addiction, a subject he examined in considerable detail in his novel Dog Soldiers (1974) and in the short story “Porque No Tiene, Porque Le Falta,” is the central concern of “Helping,” a vivid and very convincing rendering of a man who is fully aware of the damage that his drinking has done to his life and to his relationship with his wife but who cannot completely resist the temporary elation he experiences in anticipating and then submitting to the allure of alcohol.

Compounding Elliot’s confusion is a chaotic social situation that Stone uses as a register of his dissatisfaction with society in the decades following the Vietnam War and its effects on American life. Although it is not offered as an excuse for Elliot’s alcoholism—neither by the narrative perspective nor by Elliot himself—the lingering effects of American involvement in Vietnam are evident in Elliot’s barely suppressed rage toward Blankenship, who lies about serving there, and by Elliot’s tendencies toward violence in speech and gesture that he regrets to an extent but does not really try to suppress.

Stone is clearly sympathetic toward Elliot, and the reader can understand why Elliot explodes when the parasitic Votopiks places impossible demands on Grace, why Elliot feels patronized by Anderson’s casual assumption of moral superiority, why he purposely departs from standard counseling styles when the irritating Blankenship persists with constant demands, and even why he resorts to alcohol as a palliative for his psychic pain. What is harder to accept is Elliot’s badgering, bullying attitude toward his wife, who not only deserves much better treatment but also whose willingness to stay with Elliot is either a measure of immense love and devotion or a perverse need to absorb verbal abuse as a demonstration of sanctity. Stone uses Grace’s name as an obvious symbol but avoids a too-simplistic conception of her character by skillfully showing both her desire to assist people who have no other place to turn, as well as her irritation with Elliot expressed in biting ripostes to Elliot’s cheap sarcasm. Ultimately, her sense of herself is based so strongly on an ethic of caring and assistance that she...

(The entire section is 615 words.)