A book can be a great time capsule into yesteryear, which is right where Shannon Pufahl’s On Swift Horses takes us. As promised this novel features a lot of horses, and naturally, since it explores the early days of Las Vegas and booming past of San Diego and the Pacific Coast.
No lie, I was really excited for On Swift Horses. It starts off great, with a dry, sparse style that immediately calls to mind the West, but not baroque. Muriel wanders into the narrative working as a waitress at a diner frequented by “horsemen” – stable hands, jockies, and trainers who bet on horse races at Del Mar. We meet stoic Lee, Muriel’s husband, and Lee’s eccentric brother Julius, a romantic figure who seems lost but excels at gambling. Julius makes his way through 1950’s California cheating and playing cards, and hopping from boyfriend to boyfriend. He eventually drifts out to Las Vegas where he finds work as security for a casino, spotting cheaters and turning them in. He also meets the alluring Henry, a co-worker and fellow cardsharp, with whom he falls hopelessly in love. When Henry disappears, Julius chases him through the desert and down to Tijuana.
Once Henry disappears, however, a malaise falls over the entire narrative. The adventure in the world of gambling stalls into ramble on the part of Julius. On the Muriel side of plot, her marriage to Lee turns stagnant as she becomes obsessed with Julius, and this inspires her explore her own attraction to women. The dry text no longer fits the characters who act out stylized dramas that don’t particularly pique the imagination. Muriel ends up with Sandra, a lesbian neighbor whose only flaw seems to be that she won’t make the first move. The Bible is quoted. A horse is chased for several drawn out chapters.
More poetically-inclined readers will enjoy the beautiful language set against vibrant settings. The horse races of San Diego, the novelty of old Las Vegas, and the vast Mexican coastline all exhibit the West’s romantic, exotic past. For me though, the setting needs a little plot to really animate it and do it justice.
Favorite quote: “You ever feel like that, though? Like there’s just this narrow window of time when what you want might come to you?”
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