Yannick Murphy, on the opening page of The Call, presents a vivid image of mortality — but with an almost disquieting sense of serenity.
David, a veterinarian and the story’s first-person narrator (and a fictional portrayal of Murphy’s husband), tears the hind legs off an already-dead, half-born calf while attempting to remove it from its mother. He acknowledges the dismemberment. And then goes he home to his wife and children, thinking, “Is there a nicer place to live?”
The novel’s solemnly existential timbre is a result of both its rural New England setting (whose rich landscapes Murphy brings very much to life, alongside David’s clients’ and neighbors’ close relationships with their animals) and its structure. While her frank, closely cropped prose is welcome and effective throughout, it is the way in which Murphy frames David’s experiences — whether mundane or life changing — that gives them so much of their weight.
CALL: Sick sheep.
ACTION: Visited sheep. Noticed they’d eaten all the thistle.
RESULT: Talked to owner, who is a composer, about classical music. Admired his tall barn beans. Advised owner to fence of thistle so sheep couldn’t eat it. Sheep become sick from thistle.
THOUGHTS ON DRIVE HOME: Is time travel possible? Maybe time is not a thing. Because light takes a while to travel, what we’re seeing is always in the past.
WHAT THE WIFE COOKED FOR DINNER: Breakfast.
That unexpectedly cathartic form fills The Call from start to finish; and it only builds in strength as the book continues, especially as that early image of mortality hits home. The repetitive, fragmented bounce of brief thoughts charmingly introduces the reader to David, his wife Jen and their three children — but it is raw and unforgiving when his 12-year-old son, Sam, is shot while the two are hunting, falls from a tree stand to the forest floor, and ends up in a coma.
As Sam lays limp in the hospital, David’s normally solid sense of focus wavers — and he slowly becomes more insistent on finding the cowardly hunter who, after having accidently hit his son, had fled the scene, leaving no trace. Every step of that mental anguish is accompanied by the mysteriously surreal, blinking lights of a spacecraft that remains unidentified throughout, reappearing at random in the night sky. Murphy remains effective in her storytelling by not allowing that phantom ship to become a novelty; it never becomes its own plot, but is used as a hauntingly fleeting, outward manifestation of David’s helplessness and frustration as he tries to carry on with business as usual. Maybe the visitors on the spacecraft know who has shot his son, he thinks incessantly.
When Sam wakes up, largely unharmed at the end of the ordeal, Murphy forgoes an extended and emotionally sappy reunion in order to keep the introspective nature of David’s tone intact. Even as his son works to overcome a lingering stutter and fit back in at school, David seeks his own answers in order to reintegrate and reclaim his sanity — as, after the helplessness he had felt regarding his son subsides, he must continue to support his family as the economy begins to crumble and those veterinary calls stop coming as frequently as they used to.
Through it all, the specter of those lights from space hang overhead, and they seem to remind us that — even within the perceived plainness of rural America — nothing, for any family, is ever quite that simple. And then, not long after Sam is back on his feet, an even greater shock to David’s consciousness takes place — as he is visited by someone who forces him to answer the question of what it really means to be a family member, or a human being. In lieu of a big spoiler, I can safely tell you how David, in the delusion of his disbelief, first interprets the presence of his visitor.
WHAT THE SPACEMAN SAID: My name is Mark Howell. Then the spaceman shook my hand. Even though it was cold outside, the spaceman’s hand was warm. They must have good heating on that spacecraft, I said to myself. May I come inside? The spaceman said.
David’s most touching experiences, along with Murphy’s quietly climactic prose, reach their mental peaks alongside the entrance of this visitor, who is simultaneously foreign and incredibly close. And once he is gone, the questions he brings having been answered, David finally knows what to do when he meets the man who shot his son.
The Call is a hell of a novel. It’s great. Towards the end of it, I couldn’t help but think of Gerry Mulligan, the greatest baritone saxophonist of them all. Why? Because Gerry took a potentially awkward, overwhelming and clichéd instrument, and he played it with such nuance, and such thoughtfulness, that you really couldn’t doubt the sheer veracity of any phrase he felt like blowing. That’s what Murphy has done here — she brings us to the point at which the mind of a father, the needs of his kin, the spirit of the forest, and the soul of some nameless aura all intersect. Out of that haze comes a beautiful clarity, and I have to say that it made me smile.