Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Roadmaps: Helping Characters Find Themselves in Tobias Wolff’s “Awaiting Orders”


Soft-spoken does not, or at least it should not, apply exclusively to turns in conversation or in personality. In making this limiting judgment about the power of the unsaid or understated, what could be lost in the mix is the resonating effect such as approach can have when applied to the craft of writing strong fiction. This is a fact that Tobias Wolff is fully aware of and proves in his short story, “Awaiting Orders,” which was included in the 2006 Best American Short Stories and first published by The New Yorker earlier this year.

A short story, even for the form and especially for having been published by The New Yorker, “Awaiting Orders” does what all solid stories do that fail to reach, so to speak, the staple twenty-page rule often beautifully butchered on one end by the Raymond Carvers of the world and exhaustively on the other by the Alice Munros. It buries the truth while revealing it in one quick and short punch. And it achieves this strange balance by fully employing the understated, by juxtaposition and, most importantly, by exploring the world of its characters with such bluntness that a roadmap is created for the character that is clear to the reader, if not clear to the character himself, which is, of course, another small pleasure in and of itself for the astute reader of literary fiction.

In “Awaiting Orders,” Wolff opens with his main character, Morse, a longtime military man pondering his proclivity toward men and allowing his thoughts to roam around this general idea as seen in this passage:

He had often wished that his desires served him better, but in this he supposed he was not unusual -- that it was a lucky man indeed whose desired served him well. Yet he had hopes. Over the last few months Morse had become involved with a master sergeant from division intelligence -- a calm, scholarly man five years older than he.

This is an interesting place for the reader to be for any length of time -- the mind of a gay man in the military being a hotbed for hidden and revealing thoughts. Through this format we find out that Morse has been involved with another man in his unit for a few months. The man, Dixon, will prove intricate later on.

In taking on the subject of a gay man in the military, Wolff set out to do exactly what his author notes says he wanted to achieve included in the anthology. Morse has become the vehicle for Wolff to explore what is too often a black and white issue among the general public. In his author notes, Wolff expands on this idea, saying: “Issues -- gay marriage, abortion, evolution, capital punishment, gays in the military -- have the effect of making us imagine demons on one side and angels on the other." This story works on that second level, taking on a topic that appears to have only two options for perspective. But, at its core, it is a story that shows us a confused man who has learned to repress his true feelings because of his environment and so, as a result, has lost any chance he might have ever had to find his inner compass, the source of his true happiness.

This idea of the inability of Morse to find the courage to live his life in the way he sees fit is hinted at with the inner-glimpse into his mind through Wolff’s observations leading up to the introduction of another character that will ultimately finish off the contrast for both the reader and Morse. This character, Julianne, the sister of a fellow-soldier, Billy Hart, whom Morse has felt a stirring affection for of late, will provide a reflection, a reminder, to Morse of his inability to allow any part of his true self exposed and also work to provide an echo to him of his biggest problem -- the failure to commit. However, Wolff’s roadmap will lead the reader to his destination far before the character.

Julianne has arrived at the base to find out more about her brother after learning from Morse that he has shipped out already, apparently without giving notice to his family. Julianne brings Hart’s adolescent son, Charlie, and the three meet at a local diner where we see Morse react to each detail of Hart’s private life on a plethora of levels, that of disgust, disappointment and longing, the knowledge that somewhere in the world there is a son and a wife, if disgruntled, are subtle, soft-spoken revelations for both the reader and the character. In the following passage, we find Morse reflecting on how he failed to offer Julianne and Charlie the opportunity to stay at his place with he and Dixon during the storm earlier in the story, instead allowing them to sleep in a truck as an alternative. The fact that he offered money for a hotel room is little consolation to him, as he realizes he only made the offer in such a way because Julianne was too proud to accept. Morse is so engrossed in his own desires for Hart and contrasting fears of being found out as a homosexual that he knowingly fails to appreciate the problem Julianne faces with money and how to manage the responsibilities that have been cast upon her by her wayward brother. It is also telling that Morse is spurred into this reflection by Dixon, who can’t understand why Morse didn’t offer Julianne and Charlie the chance to stay with them.

“You should have invited them to stay here. People like that, mountain people, will accept hospitality when they won’t take money. They’re like Arabs. Hospitality has a sacred claim. You don’t refuse to give it, and you don’t refuse to take it.”

“Never occurred to me,” Morse said, but in truth he’d had the same intuition, standing outside the restaurant with the two of them, wallet in hand.

Later in the same passage, Morse continues with that wonderful inner reflection that Wolff so easily taps into, contemplating the possibilities of what could have happened had he invited Julianne and Charlie to stay with himself and Dixon, revealing a great deal that the reader, at this point, already understands, and that Morse himself is just now facing.

And then what? Dixon walking up and playing host, bearing fresh towels to the guest room, making coffee, teasing the boy -- and looking at Morse in that way of his. Its meaning would be clear enough to Julianne. What might she do with such knowledge? Out of shock and disgust, perhaps even feeling herself betrayed, she could ruin them.

Finally, Morse concludes that Julianne might not be a threat in this way, but as he remembers her walking away in the rain, walking against the rain, and telling Charlie matter-of-factly that walking in the rain was what needed to be done, the story wraps with this implied and subtle touch of the pen, the clear understanding that Morse is flawed, yes, but not because he is gay. In this way, Wolff has provided this information to both the reader and created this understanding within the character himself, a revelation about his basic human nature, not his sexual preference. The revelation goes to great length to comment on the idea that human shortcomings are universal, no matter the details. Wolff has used the short story as a way of commenting on society’s complete failure to make this simple observation without assistance, instead leaning lazily to a jagged perspective on their fellow human beings, as was his intentions, according to a further look at contributor’s notes in the anthology in which “Awaiting Orders” appeared, in which he explains, “This is a crude and degrading habit of mind, and stories are one cure for it”.

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