'Escort' novel makes us think about choices

By Heather Lee Schroeder
August 11, 2006

Calling Out
By Rae Meadows
MacAdam Cage
280 pages, $22

A novel featuring Salt Lake City, Mormons and an escort agency seems almost doomed to mediocrity - a sort of "Sex in the City" meets "The Devil Wears Prada" laced through with a heavy dose of religion. In the hands of a lesser writer, that's exactly what "Calling Out" would have become, but the novel's author, Madison resident Rae Meadows, adroitly avoids prurience and chick lit with her beautifully crafted novel about a woman who has lost her way.

Like the Mormons who wandered through the wilderness until they found their promised land in Utah, Meadows' protagonist, Jane, has left behind her life in New York City after her boyfriend dumps her. She ends up in Salt Lake City, drawn at least partly by her former college sweetheart-turned-friend, Ford.

Jane works the phones at an escort agency using the name Roxanne. Her job is to sell the girls to callers and then to set up "dates." Although Jane feels conflicted about her work, she also finds herself drawn closer and closer to the titillating mystery and danger of actual escorting. Inevitably, Jane crosses the line and "calls out."

Because she is not a full-blown escort at the beginning of the novel, the reader follows Jane as she learns the ropes one date at a time. (It's not like there are training classes to teach someone how to do the work - and work it is.)

From the first encounter with a caller who has been flirting with "Roxanne" via the telephone to a client who's interested in total humiliation, Meadows captures the uncertainty, eroticism and grimy aftermath of Jane's descent into full-blown escort work and finally a brush up against prostitution in a way that is both humane and nonjudgmental.

Meadows' writing remains focused and carefully observant even through the most charged or potentially cliched moments in the novel, and that attention to Jane's inner life drives the narrative forward. "Calling Out" explores the line between work and identity in a way that many contemporary novels can't quite manage, asking the important question: Are we the sum of our work?

Jane is not the sum of her work, which seems to be the point. When not calling out, she struggles to figure out who she is. Two men swirl around her, her ex-boyfriend calls her daily, and she develops a dangerous friendship with Ford's girlfriend, Ember.

Satisfyingly complex, "Calling Out" also offers the reader an in-depth look at Mormon culture and the dramatic beauty of Utah's landscape. Meadows' near-encyclopedic knowledge isn't surprising since she received her masters of fine arts in creative writing from the University of Utah.

Meadows provides a wealth of information about the escort business as well. She tells us, for example, that escorts may not bring a client to sexual satisfaction, hug, or be touched in sexual areas (including breasts), but as Jane explains to a friend, escorts may legally "kiss, cuddle, caress, tease, strip, take a shower, nibble on his ears, give a bubble bath, tell sexy stories, play with his nipples, sexy poses, spank, get a massage, model lingerie, talk dirty, role-play, tickle, talk about fantasies, lick chocolate off him, kiss his thighs, put on baby oil, moan and groan, tell secrets, tell jokes, dance, kiss his neck, lick his nipples, have your toes sucked, and anything else not on the can't do list."

As the plot near its end, one gets a sense of how easy it would be to get lost - a single bad choice can careen someone's life out of control. In "Calling Out," Meadows suggests that the choices made by women on the fringes of society are often driven by desperation or restlessness, and although these choices may not make sense to us, the women behind them are not monsters.

When one of Jane's clients asks her, "How come you do this anyway? You seem like a nice girl," she replies, "Does one preclude the other?"

It's a good question - one that the reader will ponder long after finishing this novel.

Heather Lee Schroeder recently earned her master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her "Literary Lunch" column appears on the book page twice a month. E-mail: hls@literarylunch.com. Web site: www.literarylunch.com.

©Literary Lunch 2006