At the heart of Michael Schiavone’s debut novel Call Me When You Land is a fractured family pulsating with quiet desperation. Single mother Katie Olmstead receives the news that her estranged ex-husband Craig, father to her teenage son C.J., has died of a heart attack and left behind for them a Harley-Davidson Road King. Katie sees the motorcycle for what it may mean to C.J.—escape from her. Personal demons of failure swim to the surface as she struggles to hold onto a son grappling with the death of a father he never knew, a son that readily disregards and spurns her affections. While C.J. vents his anger on the hockey rink, Katie numbs her sorrows with Grand Marnier.
Schiavone writes skillfully and with purpose. There is as much (if not more) meaning in what he doesn’t say as in what he does. The brusque exchanges between mother and son underscore the painfully vast distance between them. The author also often sets up a scene then immediately enriches it with flashbacks, the constant shifts in time is reflecting the pasts that pervasively haunt the characters’ presents. Schiavone’s attention to details in portraying ordinary events (a hockey match, a night of bartending) may seem merely practical, but such details serve to convey the searing realities—C.J.’s repressed rage, Katie’s agonizing self-hatred—that underlie these events.
While plot lines about dysfunctional families have been done to the point of exhaustion, Schiavone masterfully develops his characters with human depth and complexity. Craig is not merely ‘the deadbeat dad’ who abandons the family, nor Caroline ‘the uptight sister,’ C.J. ‘the angsty teenager,’ and Katie ‘the alcoholic mother.’ Harsh one moment and tender the next, each of these well-drawn figures surprise us with their humanity and depth. Schiavone compels us to care about them, their wounds and triumphs reflecting many of our own.
Ultimately, Call Me When You Land paints a poignant and gripping story of a fractured psyche, of a mother terrified of losing the one defense against herself—her son: “Often she’s romanticized the future freedom, her parental parole, but in her bones she knows a sudden privacy will cut deep. With him, C.J. will take her understanding of consequence. Without him, there will no longer be a reason to hide.” Powerful in its subtleties, moving in its understatedness, the novel expresses the painful realities of a family and the quiet desperations that threaten to break it.