Book review: ‘The Call,’ by Yannick Murphy

September 13, 2011

Set in rural Vermont, Yannick Murphy’s “The Call” initially sounds like a Robert Frost-lite celebration of old-fashioned virtues, populated by crusty but lovable backwoods cranks. The book gets under your skin, though. Murphy is cunning and thoughtful enough to give her story some unexpected curves, and as it unfolds, it gradually accrues substantial emotional depth.

The protagonist is David Appleton, a small-town veterinarian whose life is upended when his son, Sam, is badly injured in a hunting accident. Obsessed with vengeance, nearly disabled with grief and distracted by visions and omens, Appleton endures a year of turmoil before he and his family miraculously right themselves. Their redemption arrives in an unlikely way that nonetheless feels spiritually hard-won and fitting, deftly closing the circle of the novel’s season-oriented timeline.

This summary makes Murphy’s novel sound formulaic and corny, but its peculiar charm eludes easy categorization. The most striking element of “The Call” is its distinctive structure: The story comes to us in a stream of statements and summaries, as in the veterinarian’s medical logbook or journal. This mildly experimental technique takes some getting used to, but over time it imparts a surprising momentum and clarity, as well as allowing for moments of sneaky humor:

“WHAT THE WIFE COOKED FOR DINNER: Nut loaf.

“WHAT I ATE FOR DINNER: Not nut loaf.”

What resonates even more deeply than the novel’s unusual form, however, is Murphy’s ability to invoke some very big themes — responsibility, guilt, revenge, the moral order of community — without tipping over into the heavy-handed or obvious. It helps that Appleton and his wife are depicted as two imperfect people capable of surliness, petulance and recrimination, as well as moments of great tenderness.

Though the book is packed with a bit too much country-vet talk (by the end you’ll know a lot about palpating cows’ hocks), it also features meditations on the physics of the universe, some caustic observations on technology and modern society, and accounts of the tumble of daily life with three young children. With its combination of Yankee stoicism and offhand poetry, the book conveys the slightly archaic feel of a biblical parable, a real accomplishment in today’s hyper-contemporary fictional landscape. All told, “The Call” is definitely worth answering.

Lindgren is a poet and musician who divides his time between Manhattan and Pennsylvania.

the call By

Yannick Murphy Harper

. 220 pp. Paperback, $14.99

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