CALLED OUT reads like a sequel of sorts to Harold Kushner’s WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE via A. G. Mojtabai’s two most recent books, the novel ORDINARY TIME and BLESSED ASSURANCE: AT HOME WITH THE BOMB IN AMARILLO, TEXAS. Often predictable and at times unpretentious to a fault, CALLED OUT proves nevertheless deeply moving in its portrayal of ordinary people struggling to do their human best in trying circumstances. Strangely reminiscent of both Raymond Carver’s short stories and Walker Percy’s Catholic existentialist novels, Mojtabai’s narrative deals with the crash of a passenger plane into a field in a Texas township a little too patly called Bounds. Mojtabai plays down the crash itself while playing up the reactions of a handful of townspeople: the local postmistress, a cocktail waitress, a ne’er-do- well who sneaks onto the crash site and tries to sneak off with a severed hand, a journalist who just happens to be passing by, a priest more than a little unsure of both his vocation and his effectiveness, and through them a number of lesser voices: police officers, disaster workers, the mayor, a local radio evangelist, a few survivors, and later a sampling of the victims’ friends and relatives who make the pilgrimage to Bounds.
The novel focuses first on the time just before the crash, then the immediate aftermath, and finally the subsequent fallout, moving back and forth between various first-person accounts. As a result, the novel possesses a certain immediacy (even more in the wake of the 1994 crash of an American Eagle flight in Indiana), as if the characters’ thoughts have been recorded in a cosmic black box or by some meta-journalist with a tape-recorder as they look back on the crash, a mystery that goes well beyond mechanical failure or meteorological event. As the author explains in a prefatory note, at the heart of the book is “a long-ago conversation with a Roman Catholic canon lawyer” on the efficacy of the Last Rites when administered in a disaster situation in which the religious affiliation and spiritual condition of the victims cannot be ascertained. The canon lawyer’s answer—“wasted oil and a wistful prayer”—is precisely what Mojtabai examines. In the conflict between “authority” and “humanity,” this spare yet often powerful and strangely reassuring novel puts its faith on the side of the latter.