On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl
My rating: 4/5 cats
“What a thing is progress.”
set in 1956 in the american west, this is a beautifully written book about two characters at odds with the postwar values of a country in the process of redefining itself, promising new opportunities that neither of them want.
muriel is 21 years old, a newlywed and recent arrival to san diego. her progressive, independent mother has recently died, leaving muriel their house in kansas. some months later, upon their discharge from the navy, her frequently rebuffed suitor lee and his brother julius come to visit, during which time she develops a bond with julius, who is unlike anyone she has ever met; their late night alcohol-fueled talks awakening in her a kind of platonic fascination.
she reluctantly agrees to marry lee and move to california with them, but despite their plans to share a house together, julius is plagued by restlessness and winds up in las vegas, keeping in touch with them sporadically by phone, but unready to “settle down” into their planned life.
muriel finds herself, unsurprisingly, unfulfilled by married life, even though she is not confined to the traditional role of a housewife. she takes a job waitressing in a restaurant frequented by gamblers with deep ties to the horse racing scene; former jockeys and trainers, and she begins to pay attention to their boasts and speculations about specific horses and riders. eventually, she starts going to the races herself, placing bets and winning big, a secret she keeps from lee; a part of her life that, like her house in kansas, is all her own.
She is stopped sometimes, at work or waking in the mornings, by a poignant feeling. The feeling is like happiness but it comes so slowly and is so austere she might easily mistake it for grief. She could not explain it but she knows this feeling has something to do with keeping a secret from Lee, which she had somehow always felt she was doing even before she had a secret to keep…If she were a different kind of person she might have wondered whether love was always this way, if it existed in the spaces between people, the parts they kept strange to each other.
successfully keeping one secret makes her more comfortable with the idea of secrecy, and it gives her the courage and motivation to pursue other previously unconsidered avenues on a path to self-discovery, despite the very real risks of her yearnings.
this is a book i am in no way qualified to review—or at least, not in the dinky space goodreads provides for book-reflection. and i know that sounds like a cop-out, but i’ve already spent hours writing and revising this, doing actual research ffs, crossing out pages of notes and quotes, reminding myself that i’m not getting paid to write this, nor is anyone interested in reading some rando’s hot take on sexual repression in the land of the free, or the symbolism of gambling as a conflict between hope and fate, etc; a million pages of lit crit on a book that’s not out for another three months. but that’s the kind of book this is—it demands thoughtful consideration, it engages the reader in unpacking its depths. books like this are why book awards exist, and entire dissertations about gay rights and feminism and the roots of suburban malaise will likely be inspired by this puppy.
i’m not even going to bother with julius’ storyline. i’ve already deleted like thirty paragraphs full of illicitly-quoted ARC-text and external links. because i am a nerd.
the book is bigger than it appears—the writing is chewy, the pacing slow and deliberate, and there’s a tendency to imply rather than state—instances where characters, we are told, come to realize/understand/recognize something, without explicitly sharing these revelations with the reader. it’s a book that rewards the attentive reader, which is pretty ballsy in a day ’n age favoring instant gratification.
it’s a little steinbeck-y, but there’s something about it that reminds me of the expatriate lit of hemingway and durrell, although it’s not a stylistic or thematic similarity. it shouldn’t—both characters are americans and it is mostly set in the states, with a brief time in mexico, but there’s something about how the story plays out, the pacing, the nature of the scenes; they almost read like travelogue—watching a horse race, playing cards, the way they both (but mostly julius) interact with the people they meet—episodes that seem languid and inconsequential whose symbolic import is frequently buried, left for the reader to mine.
i can’t pinpoint it, but it’s something that struck me while i was reading it, which i am mentioning in case anyone else had that experience and can articulate it better than i can. it might be as simple as being set in a nation in transition or exploring new landscapes within their country or the fact that both characters feel disconnected from the drive towards staking out new ground, establishing roots through building a home and a family, making them tourists in a cultural sense; set apart from the contemporary definitions of success.
Lee wants a half-acre in Mission Valley, on the San Diego River, where they can build a three-bedroom and plant fruit trees. He has pinned the advertisement above the window in their kitchenette. When he and Muriel sit up late smoking and playing cards he tells her about the narrow valley, once settled by missionaries and then by nut and dairy farmers, now divided into lots graded flat and grassless. Sometimes he stands and goes to the little window and touches the pastel houses and the long furrow of cypress trees, and though he sighs dramatically and smiles Muriel knows he is not joking. She knows that he imagines her there in a real kitchen and a real bed. He believes the great future will meet them, in the new suburban landscape.
i have made a mess of this review, with all my cutting and digressing and overthinking, but i hope it doesn’t steer anyone away from reading this. it’s not a reflection on the book, just my own unbridled—or poorly harnessed—enthusiasm making a jumble of things. this is a fantastic debut and you should read it and review it better than i have.
full review to come, but i submitted a high-five about the book to indie next, using capital letters and everything!
A densely atmospheric debut sinking its hooks deep into postwar America’s tender underbelly, exposing the homophobia and bigotry beneath the nation’s renewed spirit of hope and opportunity. Muriel and Julius are restless outsiders—siblings-in-law who share a passion for gambling as well as their more furtive passions—making their own opportunities to find love and happiness; a gamble that one will unexpectedly win and one will just as unexpectedly lose. An immersive and rewarding first novel.
don’t i sound all grown up and trustworthy?
i was already excited to read this ARC, and then:
when you send someone a cover-matching “thank you” card after meeting them at BEA, you win awards for both style and etiquette.
the must-be-read-immediately-because-promises stack is still daunting, but this one has been shifted up.
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