by Yannick Murphy
I saw The Call mentioned on a year-end list (forgive me for not remembering whose) with the distinction, "Overlooked 2011 Novels." At the time, the novel had a place in my to-read queue for early 2012, but that post re-reminded me of its existence, and I thought that maybe this short-ish and unusual book would make a great way to round out this year in reviews. I'm glad I had it cut in line because it really is worth noting before the year is out.
Set in rural New England, a veterinarian named David makes various house calls to area farms/houses, mostly dealing with horses, cows, and sheep. He's got a good routine going, including his plans for hunting in the Fall, this time with his son, Sam. His wife, Jen, worries that he isn't ready, despite Sam having completed hunter's safety courses. They have two other children, daughters Sarah and Mia. Though David loves his family and has a sense of duty, there is a growing rift of dissatisfaction between him and his wife. Though it's not necessarily the marriage itself that causes the dissatisfaction, there's an underlying tone of, "Is this all there is for us?"
What the children said to me when I got home: Hi, in German.
What I said: Oh, my lieblings, you have been paying attention to your Poppy! German is a great language.
What the wife said: They should speak Spanish instead. So much of the world does.
What I said: Do you really want to know what the Mexicans are saying? I'd rather know what the Germans are saying.
What the wife said: To the showers, mach schnell. That's what they said.
What I said: No, no, they said that during a fascist regime, but they also strived to be the best. Do the very best, they said. Make the very best, they said. That's what I want my children to learn, I said.
What the wife said: Maybe they should learn a little Buddhism. A little maybe it doesn't matter to be the best.
You see what I mean by "unusual." The entire book is formatted in that way: boldface category, followed by the details. Some readers might find it distracting, but I enjoyed it from a writing standpoint — that Murphy had the endurance to write an entire novel this way and make it a satisfying story speaks a lot to her skill. While the beginning is mostly "Call," "Action," "Result," and other straight-up work-related paragraphs, the boldfaced items become more complex as the story does. It's an entirely new way of approaching "the novel," and while of course it would not work for everything, it suits this character. We watch as his stoicism evolves.
After a hunting accident involving his son, the family's life completely changes. Hospital visits and terse conversations are to be expected, but the vet has also been receiving strange phone calls and starts seeing spaceship-like lights in the sky. He does not doubt that these phone calls and lights are happening, but he is unsure who else might have noticed them as well. He wonders if they have anything to do with his son's injuries, however illogical that may be. The following passage is one of the better descriptions of helpless grief that I have ever read:
What the wife asks: How can you read the paper?
What I say: I can't do anything else. You could so, she says. You're right, I could go out, I say. I get my clothes on and grab a flashlight. I tell her I want to find my rifle that I dropped beneath my store-bought tree stand. What I really want to do is find traces of the man who shot my son that the sheriff, when he came back from his investigation in our woods, said were not to be found.. I want to run through the night hitting every branch as I go, kicking up every leaf, punching my fist into the stone-hard bark of all the fifty-foot pines that bore witness, that all saw the man who shot my son, but that cannot speak to tell me his name.
What the night says: Go home.
To be honest, I wouldn't even say that I liked the vet all that much. Although he seems like a decent guy in many respects, he's also difficult to live with. However, what makes him interesting is that he becomes more aware of the difficult parts of his personality and how that affects the rest of his family. The dissatisfaction so apparent in the opening pages becomes something else entirely when no one knows if his son will live. There's a lot going on underneath his spare report of events; we can feel it.
Humor runs beneath some moments as well. There's a kind old woman who lets her sheep live inside the house with her, and then there are lines like "Looked alpaca in the eye by mistake," that are funny if a person has a passing knowledge of animal behavior. Play-wrestling with the kids and the dogs feels all the more true-to-life when the vet says that the dogs wonder "if they should stop what was happening or let it continue because it was fun."
While I'd hesitate to say that The Call would be a universal hit for everyone, it is certainly one that keeps your mind going in between reading sessions. With the different plot elements and the interesting ways that Yannick Murphy presents the characters, I found myself trying to work out what might come next before I had a chance to pick up the book again, much in the same way the vet mentally tries to sort out his problems while driving. The Call is a bit of a puzzle, but a good one, and one certainly worth giving a try.
Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.