by a. g. mojtabai
doubleday, 223 pages, $17.95
A.G. Mojtabai’s nonfiction work, Blessed Assurance, won the 1986 Lillian Smith Award for the best book about the American South. Now, in her fifth novel, Ordinary Time, in prose as clean and spare as the landscape which is its setting, she further explores the territory. Mojtabai draws her characters in relief against the dryness of the land in the brilliance of a Texas sun. Durance is every small town one has ever known—and it is here, in the ordinary, Mojtabai seems to suggest, that the transcendent must be found, if it is discoverable at all.
Ordinary time is, in a sense, uncommitted time. In the church year, it refers to the time between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday and also between Pentecost and Advent. It is, in the mind of Father Gilvary, the only priest in Durance, “the flatland of time . . . the time between the Times.” Father Gilvary has learned to dread it, particularly the ordinary times of summer heaviness and heat, times also of spiritual drought and inertia. Sometimes the sun is so bright that the Son cannot be seen.
Christ is a brooding presence in this book “in fact, the invisible protagonist” and each of the four major characters struggles in some way with that presence or, as the case may be, that perceived absence.
Henrietta, a widow, opens a restaurant so that she can fill the empty spaces of her life. Hers is a fluid identity in a rigid landscape. She both wants more and is ready to give more than she has been given. In her loneliness she talks to the four dolls she has arranged in her bedroom. She has been saved, she claims, several times. Now at fifty-seven, she considers herself “still slippery,” although she prays that she will not backslide again. After her husband’s death she changed churches and is now a member of the Rooftree Pentecostal Church. Recently, however, Henrietta has not been able to bring herself to answer Brother Shad’s altar calls.
Her restaurant is, in many respects, an answer to prayer, and it is in this establishment that Val, a transient, finds work. Val is desperately attempting to recover his memory but when bits and pieces of it begin to come to him, he frantically moves on. When he begins to discover just who he IS, he finds he must once again escape himself and any connections with anyone who might bring him to himself. An American Adam, Val travels further and further west, on an ostensible journey of self-discovery that actually becomes self-evasion.
Clete is an unloved young man of unknown parentage, who in his off-kilter, schizophrenic way is attracted to Val. Much like Enoch Emery in Flannery O Connor’s Wise Blood, Clete craves human contact, at any cost. Val violently spurns him, and the priest for whom Clete occasionally works cannot provide him with satisfactory answers to his questions. But then the aging Father Gilvary, who had hoped to find his final home in his dwindling parish, has his own problems. Recently, he has discovered that he is going blind. His doctor has advised him to plan his future carefully, to work out the details in advance. But Father Gilvary, who will soon be reading not by daylight but by “fingerlight,” does not want to be blind just yet. He feels that “to practice blindness in advance seems as wrong . . . as to extinguish a lagging, yet still beating heart. He wants, instead, to be fully present at this time.” So he ministers to others even when he longs in his moment of crisis to be ministered to. He wants a hand other than his own to be placed in blessing on his forehead. Praying, however, is difficult; he cannot concentrate. He cannot even get the words out. Likewise, Henrietta has recently caught herself praying, “Lord, I am a swimmer” when she really meant to say, “Lord, I am a sinner.” This inability of Ordinary Time’s characters to communicate with each other and with God is dramatized by separate interior monologues that reveal their isolation in a claustrophobic environment.
“Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief is the underlying theme of this beautifully executed book. In spite of the bleak physical and spiritual landscape, there are O’Connoresque signs of God’s presence in Durance, and of His people’s willingness to find Him, however He may appear. Henrietta goes to a Christian dentist who prays before he fills a tooth. There is a Christian office-supply store in town, and the Everlasting Arms soup kitchen where the message of the preacher is that “God sees.” He may not be acting in Durance, but He is certainly seeing. He even manifests Himself occasionally, not always in fundamentalist trappings. One day the cook at Fong’s Golden Skillet sees the Virgin Mary in her frying pan. Asked by reporters to respond. Father Gilvary is at first nonplussed, but says, “The Mother of God in a frying pan? . . . And what is that supposed to mean to us? . . . That Mrs. Knighton’s labor is blessed? Of course it is. Maybe the best miracle is Ellen Knighton thinking about the Queen of Heaven while working in a hot kitchen all day long.” The transcendent is encountered in the mundane.
Val notices that the want-ads in the local paper are filled with desires and losses. The prayers and supplications of Mojtabai’s ordinary people multiply and their struggles continue. Father Gilvary, Henrietta, Val, and Clete may think they are alone. But by the end of the novel one begins to see that perhaps they are not whistling in the dark. And the season of Advent is upon them.
Jill Baumgaertner teaches English at Wheaton College (Illinois). She has just completed a semester teaching on a Fulbright grant in Spain.