"Awaiting Orders" by Tobias Wolff

New Yorker fiction -- July 25, 2005 issue

yellow light
Well, this starts out seeming to be a story about the Iraq War only to slyly turn into a story about being gay in the military. The word gay is never used, though, which is part of the subtle charm of the piece. The story itself doesn't ask and doesn't tell -- outright anyway -- though it becomes clear enough by the second or third column.

Sergeant Owen Morse is the POV character, a quiet man going about his business in today's armed services, laying low, keeping his nose as clean as he can. He's career military: "He was a soldier, no longer able to imagine himself as a civilian -- the formlessness of that life, the endless petty choices to be made." When a soldier's sister calls the barracks, and Morse has to tell her Billy Hart has already shipped out for Iraq, he muses on this Billy Hart, who never actually appears.
A good-looking troop, though. Some Indian there, those high cheekbones, deep-set black eyes; beautiful, really, and with that slow, catlike way about him, cool, aloof, almost contemptuous in the languor and ease of his movements. Morse had felt the old pull despite himself, knowing Hart was trouble but always a little taut in his presence, fighting the stubborn drift of his gaze toward Hart's face, toward that secret knowledge playing on his lips.
On first read I was all, whaaah??? This is what sergeants think about? Times sure have changed since Full Metal Jacket. But you see the subtlety here. Nothing in that snippet necessitates a homoerotic interpretation, but on second read passages like that really pop.

We begin to get some background on Morse and his dangerous dalliances. He nearly got caught, was pulled into a mysterious investigation that never quite clarified or completed itself. This is why he is "awaiting orders." The love that dare not speak its name -- in the Army it dare not even appear to be suggesting that it might possibly exist, or one's career is over. I knew this was the case, but this story puts a character to the situation and thus fills out the emotions about it that recline latent in the reader. Imagine: while defending your country -- or while invading another country for oil, as the case may be -- having to hide your innate sexual preference. To lie. But lying is survival to Morse.

The sister (Julianne) calls back, has driven all this way to visit Billy, and Morse agrees to meet her at a "pancake house." She brings Billy Hart's young son with her -- "a fat-faced boy, maybe seven or eight," who says to Morse, "You look like a frog." So, to Morse's surprise, Billy Hart is, if not straight, at least a father. The boy's mother is back in rehab, and Julianne is saddled with parental responsibilities she never bargained for. What follows is a standard talky cafe scene. At this point we have four New Yorker columns to go in a Tobias Wolff story. Let's get out of this friggin' cafe! But no. It begins to rain. We seem to have entered a Raymond Carver story, or Hemingway.
"My dad's a soldier," the boy said, head still bent over the placemat.
"I know," Morse said. "He's a good soldier. You should be proud."
When I wake up, Morse is trying to give her money. She is too proud for that. She won't even let him get the check. As she and the boy walk into the rain, she mentions that they will be sleeping in her pickup truck because it's raining too hard to drive it. Much is made of this hard rain, but its significance escapes me.

Then we flash forward to later that morning, with Dixon, Morse's current fella, asking why he (Morse) didn't invite them to come home with him. And Morse, of course, nixed that due to awkwardness and danger involved.
And then what? Dixon waking 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.
... What he feared, what he could not allow, was for her to see how Dixon looked at him, and then to see that he could not give back what he received. That things between them were unequal, and himself unloving.
Then we flash back to the pancake house goodbye scene. She and the boy again walk off into the rain! Twice! I'm all, whaaaaa?? This is what Tobias Wolff stories do now? Times sure have changed since "Hunters in the Snow."

I don't know what to do with this story, and I feel I may be missing something. If his relationship with Dixon is really the central problem for this character, then it seems like we should get more than two pretty stock paragraphs about it. Okay, he can't offer her a place to stay because he's afraid she will see he doesn't love Dixon as much as Dixon loves him? Is that it?

It's like there are two strains to the story: the Julianne Hart one, which goes nowhere for too long, and the Dixon one, which gets short-shrifted -- almost seems thrown in as an afterthought, there's so little of it. If the flashing forward/back ending is meant to tie these threads together, I fail to see how it does that.

What is this story about? What is its core? Don't get me wrong: If there's one thing I love about Mr. Wolff, it's his economy of language and structure, his ability to be to the point and pithy. He must be one of the most ruthless rewriters around. But here he seems to have trimmed deep into the muscle or even bone. I'm not asking for a dissertation on Morse's psychology and relationship -- just for something to tie all this together. What problem has been solved or brought to the surface? His relationship with Dixon? More of that, then, please -- and less sleepy minimalist dialog in rain-battered Waffle Houses.

Maybe the heat is finally beginning to boil my brains.

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