When loss twice over upends a father’s world, he resists encroaching despair by setting out to help someone.
Telephone, the new novel from Percival Everett (author of So Much Blue and Erasure), draws us into the rich interior world of Zach Wells, a Los Angeles professor of geology and paleornithologist for whom the tedium of daily life is abound. The most minimal interactions with his wife Meg are strained, a coworker’s floundering tenure bid accelerates Zach’s vexations with academe, and, to make matters worse, a flirtatious student shadows him at every turn, including an awkward field trip to the desert.
Threatened by collapse into despondency, Zach is buoyed by his love for his daughter Sarah, a diligent chess player with whom he shares a close friendship well-leavened with banter. A trip to the doctor over Sarah’s worsening vision and lagging memory yields a heartbreaking result and a new mystery: a plea for help concealed in a jacket he ordered online. Sarah’s health fades, and Zach is impelled to seek out the source of the enigmatic note.
Telephone is a lovingly crafted portrait of a father confronted by his helplessness amid “the sad impermanence of everything,” struggling to live into his “only job in life.” Everett’s meticulous study makes Zach’s sudden shift from meditation to rescue convincing, and though abrupt conclusions offer no easy answers, Telephone never promises them. Its strength lies in the heartfelt way Zach grapples with the most challenging of questions—of the limits of knowing, human need and responsibility in the apparent absence of God, and even storytelling itself.
Brock Warren is a freelance editor living in the southwest Missouri Ozarks. His passions include pastoral theology, queer histories, and memoirs of place.