“Portrait Of A Man Trying To Hang On” Wade Whitehouse is a man who is frightened to death of following in his father's footsteps, yet he follows them exactly. His violent temper and alcoholism are giant neon signs of how much he is like his father Glen and how closely related their actions are. Wade and his brother Rolfe lived with a violent and destructive man whose behavior was both mentally and physically threatening to his sons. Their father had successfully destroyed them in a long process that began when they were young boys, as they stood and watched him strike their mother. These boys grew up with only feelings of fear and loathing toward their father. Rolfe is the son who in a sense escapes and tells this story as the narrator. Wade, on the other hand, is captured by the violence and alcoholism and acts in the same manners as his father before him.
Wade and his father anesthetize their pain through alcoholism which Rolfe manages to just barely escape. We see Wade as a drunk, abusive, and overall sad father, ex-husband and sheriff who has lost control of his life. He is a very complex character from a small town that becomes mentally ill as time goes by. Is this due to his alcoholism? Does everything stem from his alcoholism and the fact that his father was mentally and physically abusive to both him and his brother? Is alcoholism Wade’s affliction? Or is it the devastating and lingering effects of the child abuse he grew up with?
There are many things in Wade’s life that might have driven him to become an alcoholic. For example his actions have cost him his marriage to Lillian, his daughter Jill doesn’t want to live with him, he is a sheriff in a small town with little crime, his mother dies and his father is hard to cope with in his old age, and his girlfriend Margie only stands by him until finally she too has had enough. These seem like common occurrences in the life of many Americans today, yet these are the things that lead people to alcoholism. Wade is being held down by more baggage than most have. In a quest to assert himself, Wade strikes out against those who are most important in his life and is faced with the disrespect of the town. Wade is not only a man who has been beaten by his father, but by life in general.
Wade’s life is defined by him and his buddies hanging out, drinking and smoking weed. He is weighed down by his marital problems with Lillian and the problems he has with Jill. Even though he tries to make things better, things turn out worse. The most exciting thing in his life at the beginning of the book is the deer hunting accident he must investigate. The death of Evan Twombley, a prominent man, is literally driving him crazy, although this does not compensate for all the things that go wrong in his life. He is still an alcoholic and no one can change that. His background plays a huge role in how his life is turning out. He is a man with anger and violence built into his personality. These afflictions can be attributed to his abusive father who continues to make his life miserable.
According to the Webster’s dictionary, “Affliction is defined as a distressed or painful state or misery; a cause of mental or bodily pain, as in sickness or calamity.” (Webster’s 23) As stated on the website, “Alcoholism is defined as a disorder characterized by a pathological pattern of alcohol use that causes a serious impairment in social or occupational functioning.” (www.alcoholism.com) Alcoholism is an affliction for Wade. We see the occurrences in Wade’s life to be causing him pain in many ways. He is suffering through a lifetime of painful memories. His father seemed to need alcohol the way that most of us need air. In the first stages of alcoholism, the victim functions normally, but a few personality changes may be present: the inability to handle stress and increased conflict with family members. Through the story we see Wade’s violent behavior played out by his attitude.
“Wade was locked into an old familiar sequence: his thoughts and feelings were accelerating at a pace that threw him into a kind of overdrive, a steady high-speed flow that he could not control and that he knew often led to disastrous consequences. But he did not care. Not caring was only additional evidence that he was in this particular sequence again. But there was not a damned thing he could do about it, and not a damned thing he wanted to do about it, either, which was yet a third way that he knew he was in a particular gear again.” (Banks 31)
Wade is slowly crumbling as his personal life and professional life tug him in different, destructive directions, while the legacy of his violent father drags him down. The people that are supposed to be Wade’s lifeline, the strong ones in his life, are those that are leading to his demise. His friends and family never really considered his a well put together mind.
“We all thought of Wade as a dreamer. Most people saw him as tense, quick, unpredictable, and hot-tempered, and indeed he was all those things too. But since childhood, he seemed, when he was alone or imagined that he was alone, sometimes almost to let go of consciousness and float on waves of thought and feeling of his own making. They were not fantasies, exactly, for they had no narrative and little structure, and not memories or wishes, but warm streams of dumb contentment that flowed steadily through his mind and remained nonetheless safely outside of time, as if they had no source and no end.” (Banks 94)
He is not supported by anyone that should love him. Wade is convinced that Lillian has it in for him, “Lillian’s not out to get you, Wade. You know?” (Banks 110) Margie says. Wade replies, “The hell she isn’t. Lillian’s been trying to nail me to a cross since the day I met her.” (Banks 110) He is convinced that everyone is out to get him. These are the things that are leading him to drinking. Not only is his past a contributor to his affliction but the uncaring ways of his family and friends also play a part. These are the times when Wade needs support the most and he is getting nothing. The only support he was getting was from Margie. Wade even proposes this idea, “I’ve been thinking that maybe we should get married sometime. You and me.” (Banks 174) But that will never happen in their relationship.
“Marrying Wade, however, was something she had not thought about once, not in all the years she had known him, which might seem strange: she was a single woman in her late thirties in a town where such a woman was suspect, and Wade was the one man in town whose company she enjoyed. Wade was smart, everyone knew that, and not bad-looking, and he could be funny when he wanted to, and he worked hard, although he did not make much money, and a chunk of that went to his ex-wife. He drank too much, sure, but most men did, especially unmarried unhappy men. And he had that reputation for violence, his sudden bursts of anger. But most of the unmarried unhappy men she knew had that same reputation: it seemed to go with the territory. They were disconnected men, cut off from what calmed them – a home, children, a loving loyal woman who comforted and reassured them when everyone else treated them as if they were useless and expendable. Of course, Wade had once possessed all that, and he had still been violent, not down at Toby’s Inn, as now, but worse, at home and against his own wife. Remember, Margie thought, Wade Whitehouse was a wife-beater.” (Banks 205-206)
Margie was Wade’s comfort zone. He knew she was there and her presence helped him get through some rough days of his life. “Being in bed with Margie made Wade feel safe and free in ways that he rarely felt.” (Banks 169) This only lasted for a while because she too finally had enough of him. Even with this being the case Wade considered Margie “the woman who would be his helpmate and partner in life, the woman whose presence in his life would help make his life a proper father’s life, one he could happily bring his daughter home to at last.” (Banks 219)
Wade needs some type of intervention, which involves people like his family members, friends, and loved ones preparing themselves to have a dialogue with Wade who is involved in the destructive behavior of alcoholism. The important thing for them to know is that alcoholism is not a lifestyle choice. It is a disease, an actual impairment of the body's health that prevents the person from functioning normally and causes pain not only to the alcoholic, but also to family and friends. Alcoholism may have been one of the hardest things to deal with in Wade’s life, but without the support of his loved ones he was a flawed man with nothing.
Banks, Russell. Affliction. New York: Harper Collins, 1989
Random House Webster’s College Dictionary. 1996. “Affliction” p. 23.
World Wide Web. Alcoholism. Available: http://www.alcoholism.com/ Retrieved 4/21/01.