The first few pages of The Call can be a bit discombobulating. The main character, a 40ish man named David, is a veterinarian in rural New England. He answers calls from surrounding farms and ranches, and drives out to tend to different animals. The novel takes the form of David’s work diary, in which he records the calls he takes, his actions, the results, and his thoughts along the way. Like this:
CALL: A cow with her dead calf half-born.
ACTION: Put on boots and pulled dead calf out while standing in a field full of mud.
RESULT: Hind legs tore off from dead calf while I pulled. Head, forelegs, and torso still inside the mother.
THOUGHTS ON DRIVE HOME WHILE PASSING RED AND GOLD LEAVES ON MAPLE TREES: Is there a nicer place to live?
Quickly, the pages of the diary become a place for David to ponder and exposit about his life and the world. The form of the diary—with its procedural headings that David coopts to better reflect his own experiences—becomes a counterpoint for his interior life.
It’s a “voice-driven” novel in the sense that the voices of characters, especially David, form the experience of reading it. Luckily, David’s voice is charming and calm and occasionally funny, and that experience is a pleasure.
Here’s another sample:
CALL: Alpaca down.
ACTION: Drove to farm. Remembered not to look alpaca in the eye.
RESULT: Looked alpaca in the eye by mistake. Got spit in the eye. Alpaca nice and angry now. Alpaca got up. Owner thankful. Handed me a rag that smelled like gasoline. I wiped my eye. Asked owner if he had seen the bright lights, the object moving back and forth in the sky the night before. The owner shook his head, he hadn’t seen anything.
There are a few dramatic happenings in The Call, like those lights in the sky that he ascribes (not really believing it) to a spaceship. There’s also his semi-contentious relationship with his wife, which gets significantly more contentious after David goes hunting with his teenage son, Sam, and the boy gets shot by an unseen hunter, falls out of a deer stand onto his head, and winds up in a coma.
Later, David’s other son (conceived by sperm donation and unknown to David until he shows up unannounced) appears suddenly, with something of a secret.
But, even though Murphy plays a few of these for dramatic tension, she stays far away from the neat resolutions and even plot beats of an airport thriller. David’s mission isn’t to find the right response to things, or even necessarily to act. His mission is to live in such a way that he can still enjoy his drive home after he pull the legs off a dead breached calf.
Similarly, The Call isn’t about epiphanies in the Joycean sense, it’s about the slow small moments of life that can be either enjoyed or trod upon. Ultimately it’s time enjoyably spent with a wise country vet.
Similar books: The Sportswriter, and the rest of the Frank Bascombe trilogy, by Richard Ford