George Lensing
Comparing himself to Flannery O’Connor, the novelist Walker Percy describes himself as a writer of the Catholic perspective in the 20th century:

From a Catholic perspective at least, Christianity...underwrites those very properties of the novel without which there is no novel: I am speaking of the mystery of human life, its sense of predicament, of something having gone wrong, of life as a wayfaring and pilgrimage, of the density and linearity of time and the sacramental reality of things.

These lines appear as the epigraph to a chapter entitled Toward a Catholic Theory of Fiction in Farrell O’Gorman’s Peculiar Crossroads: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Catholic Vision in Postwar Southern Fiction (2004).

O’Gorman has now followed that scholarly project with his own first novel, Awaiting Orders, and it is not an overstatement to say that he boldly sets out to suggest a religious vision similar to the one defined by Percy, but now placed in the setting of a later 20th century and in the secular culture of contemporary American life.

A native of South Carolina and a professor of English at Mississippi State University, O’Gorman might have followed O’Connor and Percy by setting his novel in the American South. The novel’s protagonist, Wes Hammond, is vaguely Southern. Having enrolled at his state university as a competent if bored student, he drifts through his first year pulled toward a career in business. A summer in Atlanta, where he is assigned the job of working to establish a new marketing strategy for a new line of adult diapers, marks the beginning of his search to find a greater meaning in his life. Abruptly leaving that world behind, he enrolls at the Institute, a military academy from which in the opening pages of the novel he has been commissioned as a Navy ensign and sent to southern California to await his orders to become a navy helicopter pilot.

Awaiting orders, however (a phrase that takes on multiple meanings in the novel), he passes a year with few military obligations and in the company of fellow officers who, in their ennui and search for constant pleasure, descend into a life of heavy drinking, sex and occasional violence. The novel revolves around Wes’s relations with three other officers: Stick, the pure hedonist with a fancy for cruelty and destruction; Cullen, described in one place as the slightly naughty Boy Scout he looked like, with his boyish smile and clean-cut face, a mischievous innocent who camps out in the backyard only to end up kidnapping and maybe accidentally maiming one of the neighbor’s cats; and the more mysterious John, Wes’s apartment-mate, who seems less attached to the group, more introspective, one who reads Kierkegaard and The Brothers Karamazov but speaks little.

A group of women, who live in an apartment complex called La Mirage, are drawn to the men. They likewise are absorbed in their own empty and rootless lives. One of them, Cynthia, a journalist, the most reserved of the coterie, attracts the attention of Wes, but Cynthia is drawn to more animated and more needy Cullen. All the characters are haunted by loneliness, which they seek constantly to overcome through an escape into the party that never ends and road trips that promise new stimulations. All are seen exteriorly through the impressions of Wes, whose own discontent and self-disgust increase through the novel. O’Gorman wonderfully captures the speech patterns, often coarse and slangy, but as familiar as instant-messaging and cellphone banter. Of one of the women’s speech, Wes says, She had picked up a California way of lilting her voice so that a statement sounded like a question, y’know?

What adds to the novel’s resonance and complexity is the information provided by television news accounts and other sources regarding the first Gulf war, Desert Stormits build-up, troop movement and finally the short-lived war itself. Though the analogy remains subtle, the deserts of Saudi Arabia and those of southern California take on a mirroring image. And the final assault of tanks and weaponry in the Middle East finds a parallel in a vicious and drunken assault by the officers outside a Mexican house of prostitution. In the midst of a visit to a freak show at Venice Beach in Los Angeles, a scene as surreal as any of Flannery O’Connor’s displays of grotesques, Wes and John overhear a news report that U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf launched....

O’Gorman, however, is up to more than an exposé of debauchery and modern-day angst. As a novelist, he is trying to explore how a Christian message of hope and redemption can attain credibility for these characters. It is a dilemma that both Percy and O’Connor explored in their own fiction. On a visit to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, Wes finds himself in a sexual embrace with one of the women at the end of a long night of drinking: She leaned up closer against him. Shouldn’t there be a simpler waysome way?... Don’t you ever wish someone would just tell you what to do?’ They are all awaiting orders.

It is the shadowy John who emerges at the end of the novel to give those orders. What makes Awaiting Orders an important novel is the author’s ability to endow this character with enough credibility and authority to pronounce the orders without preachmentperhaps because we have seen him in his own imperfection and fallibility. In the novel’s coda, set about eight years after the events of 1990-91, John is preparing to receive the sacrament of holy orders (awaiting his own orders), though he remains reticent and self-effacing. The novel has progressed through Percy’s sense of predicament, of something having gone wrong, a wayfaring dead-end. For some, however, the progression is not a dead-end but a pilgrimage, in which the capacity to turn (a key word in the novel) reveals a sacramental reality of things.

George Lensing is a professor of English at the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill.