‘On Swift Horses’ is a vibrant tale of unconventionality

Shannon Pufahl’s remarkable debut novel “On Swift Horses” tells a searing story about a forgotten side of 1950s America.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“On Swift Horses” by Shannon Pufahl, Riverhead Books, 306 pp.

America in the 1950s is a time remembered for its booming economy, a golden era of seemingly unlimited opportunity. In her remarkable debut novel, Shannon Pufahl fills in some of the stories excised from the familiar version, the stories of people who some might call misfits, who struggle to hold on to a sense of themselves at odds with the way things are supposed to be.

The novel focuses on Muriel and Lee, a newly married young couple setting off for California from their childhood home in Kansas, as well as on Julius, Lee’s younger brother who accompanies them. It explores the friendship between Muriel and Julius. Unlike Lee who has always led the crowd, Muriel and Julius each are casting about for something different, something they can’t identify, something they don’t see anywhere around them. 

When they arrive in California, Lee yearns to buy a small parcel of land in an area where tract homes are replacing olive groves. To buy the property and build the house he dreams of, he pressures Muriel to sell her mother’s house back in Kansas, the one she inherited. The money from the sale would make their dream possible, he says.

Muriel harbors her own dreams, ones less tangible. Working as a waitress at a bar frequented by regulars at the nearby racetrack, she listens to their rowdy conversations. As they share details about the horses and the likely outcomes of the day’s races, Muriel tries her hand at betting on the ponies. She keeps this hidden as she discovers she’s quite good at it and soon has a considerable nest egg. 

Her winnings bring her a sense of accomplishment and self-sufficiency. Keeping it all a secret lends a sense of power lacking in her life. She does tell Julius, knowing he would understand. Julius, after all, keeps his own secrets.

The younger of the two brothers, Julius was discharged from service in the Korean War under circumstances he won’t discuss. He wanders about, largely ignoring his older brother’s advice. Lee has always felt responsible for his brother but he comes to realize that Julius has had experiences and harbors dreams he knows nothing about.

Julius’s dreams are really quite simple. He’s searching for love and acceptance, just like his brother. But these are the 1950s and the love that he longs for is forbidden. In the midst of the McCarthy hearings, Julius must navigate a country where the love between men is considered criminal behavior. 

It is fair to say that, with depictions of casino gambling and quests through the seedier parts of towns, this book won’t appeal to everyone. But to confine it to those images or to paint such scenes with a broad brush that automatically casts them in a negative hue misses the author’s point.

Writing in a lush prose that deserves to be savored, Pufahl respects her characters. She illuminates their goals as well as their fears, making each of their decisions understandable to the reader. Their choices might not be wholly appropriate, but given the conditions they face, those decisions are likely the best under the circumstances. 

That is the author’s point: The conditions of the time did not really allow for those who did not fit the mainstream narrative. She seeks to write them back into the history.

Pufahl’s version includes people like her grandmother. She has described her childhood in Kansas and her beloved grandmother, who took her to Las Vegas and opened her eyes to a world filled with “wild possibilities” and helped her to find “tools for living in the conventional, unaccommodating world outside.” She modeled Muriel and Julius after her grandmother, she says, because revolution can begin among the most ordinary folks.

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