On Ponies, Players, and Improbability: On Shannon Pufahl’s “On Swift Horses”

By Marcie McCauleyDecember 24, 2019

On Ponies, Players, and Improbability: On Shannon Pufahl’s “On Swift Horses”

On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl

LANDING ON Shannon Pufahl’s website, visitors join a row of photographers focused on the detonation of an atomic bomb in the distance, outside Las Vegas, Nevada. In this circa-1957, black-and-white image are the backs of seven men, on slightly elevated ground, some bodies bent and others straight, some leaning into the shot and others aloof. Beyond them are their vehicles, five cars and a truck, parked a few yards farther, some angled toward the explosion and others away; a band of desert scrub; a road; another band of scrub punctuated by the silhouettes of palm trees; and, finally, the bomb’s incandescence in all directions, even downward as though reflected in water, light beaming off the roof of a car, a shoulder, equipment, a button, a shrub, and making a smudge on one photographer’s back.

This reflection from an unseen lens reminds us that there is one more photographer in this image, just out of view — the one who is photographing the rest. Behind that photographer is where, I imagine, Shannon Pufahl stands: on the margins, with a view of something “dirty and strange.”

That’s how she describes Las Vegas in the ’90s, when it was her only urban experience, unfolding when her mother and grandmother visited the city to gamble. “The influence of Kansas was entire,” Pufahl writes in “Lucky,” and in her debut novel, On Swift Horses, the character of Muriel leaves her life in Kansas behind too. At 19 years old, Muriel agrees to marry Lee and travel to San Diego, because she is “orphaned and alone,” which is an ordinary, predictable story. And because of Julius, who seems extraordinary and unpredictable.

Julius is Lee’s brother, and Lee loving Julius makes Lee “both more interesting and more bracing.” Even without Julius, Muriel’s character would have made On Swift Horses more interesting and more bracing, but what Julius does to Muriel’s worldview is what this pair of characters does to readers’ experience: in her words, it makes the world feel bigger than we imagined.

Geographically, the world they inhabit is expansive: Nevada and California. Muriel’s mornings in California have a “particular tang, the ocean air sweetened by the drift of tanker fumes.” Julius’s mornings in Nevada arrive after “the night goes by sweet and quiet” when he awakens with his lover, together with the “birdsong thin as reed outside the covered windows of the Squaw.”

When Lee borrows his boss’s Lincoln to drive with Muriel across the river to see the unfinished interstate along the edge of Mission Valley, they marvel at “its elevated form now, the men hanging overhead, the black dust from the columns,” the “cranes and the skirts of rebar.” There are orchards “hidden inside the city as if cupped inside its palm” and in these wild places, a newlywed couple is as likely to receive a “horsewarming” gift as a housewarming gift — a horse, literally.

The “general feeling of the time” is that “a marvel is deserved,” and Pufahl’s storytelling reminds readers that even a marvel has a framework. One which also contains a darker driving force: the fumes, a motel named for a member of a subjugated populace — a term not yet recognized to be derogatory — and grime on iron.

Psychologically, Muriel and Julius inhabit and move through more restrictive spaces. For instance, Julius finds work in security in Las Vegas; he too watches from the margins, specifically from above the casino floor, in the building’s attic, fitted with pathways and landings that afford an unusual perspective on the gambling below. After hours, the men he meets must maintain a delicate balance between privacy and intimacy.

Some language and descriptive passages underscore the theme of confinement. The remarks on the Hoover Dam, for example, reference the loss of life during its construction: “Some say the walls of the dam are cemented with the bones of pack mules and men, probably rope too, Julius thinks, miles and miles of rope. And teeth. Empty carafes of coffee. Chewed and discarded fingernails.” There is confinement within confinement.

The desert has inspired some lyrical writing: from Barbara Kingsolver to Linda Hogan, Willa Cather to Terese Svoboda. Pufahl’s prose feels rich but more functional than lush. The landscape infuses, rather than buttresses, the narrative. It is impossible to imagine this story unfolding elsewhere, and yet, this is not the sort of novel that overtly claims its setting is a character in its own right. Each story element works in concert to strengthen the narrative, the setting a single contribution to the work as a whole.

Consider the following passage about Muriel’s waitressing work, which affords her the opportunity to observe the horsemen who live and breathe race-track culture, which illustrates her immersion in that world:

It comes to her naturally. From the horsemen she learns a vocabulary built from idiom and double entendre — silks and shadow rolls, tongue straps and hand rides — and the rest she learns by instinct. She learns what it means when the track is cuppy, when a horse is washy[.] […] She begins to think of the landscape differently, as if the horses themselves have given it names.

The passage reveals how Pufahl constructs her story with intuitive use of language, the research subtly informing the narrative.

Both Muriel and Julius are observers, like players overlooking a tableau, like the photographers capturing that historical image of the atomic-bomb test from afar, participating in a drama unfolding but apart from it too. Mushroom clouds and catwalks — these aerial perspectives remind readers that how we observe a story influences how we experience that story. And, just as that 1950s photograph contains a visual reminder of the unobserved observer, readers recognize that Pufahl has also considered the ways in which we frame narratives.

Julius strains to imagine the story he wants to hear: with “a figure straight out of a western but the kind of western they never find to watch, one in which the lens follows not the sheriff or the boy but the dark bandit, across the mountain and back to the hideout, inside the curtained room where he undresses.” Muriel struggles to find a balance between nourishing a private life which contributes to a sense of self and sustaining a full-blown deception: “She’d liked having a secret, but she did not like lying. Lying had erased her from everything.”

In both of these examples, an absence, a longing, overshadows a presence. This pattern is identifiable throughout the novel and echoed in a number of ways, from the bones and coffee carafes entombed in the dam to the uncapped silo filled to the brim with rainwater. Pufahl intends for readers to think about two states of being, with one that was yearned for and another that actually emerged:

If he could turn his love into a noise it would be the noise of a bomb in the far desert, one that reaches the city in delay. The dawn sight of the cloud drawing up is the spectacle and the miracle but still at its distance could be a mere trick of the eye. Sometimes whole minutes later comes the convulsive thud, as if the sound was the sound of time passing and could not be rushed, and only then is the bomb real. No man could make that sound and no man could stop it. It is the sound of time itself coming forward and catching them where they stand.

What we readers observe also contains a refraction of what we cannot observe: an “opening in the ground that hints at some depth beyond,” a tightly folded $100 bill in the heel of a boot, or iron rails “now sunk into the asphalt.” These rails, for instance, “carried first freight then laborers then men in starched uniforms to the bases just north.” Now, they are barely visible, their history unrecognizable, despite the number of lives changed by their initial presence.

Whether a character walks out of a room trailing cigarette smoke or there is scent left behind on a shirt collar, transitory effects have a concrete impact on human lives. Often the element of physicality is included in the narrative as, for instance, when another casino employee suffers from the intense heat, and stumbles into Julius: “As he walks along the catwalk to the other side he can feel Henry’s palm still there in the center of his chest, like a footprint rising slowly from the stubble of a mown field.” The sensory detail engages readers from all directions.

Whether explored or symbolic, these dichotomies contribute to a tension simmering beneath the narrative. The sensation is intensified by Muriel’s desire to be married alongside her increasing dissatisfaction with married life, as well as Julius’s temptation to put his skill set to work — his capacity to recognize a cheating player — for personal gain.

“Maybe trying to be good or right is just a chore they set up to keep us distracted from the real point,” another security worker suggests to Julius. Couched in this observation is the most basic dichotomy of all — us and them — but though this is an undercurrent in Pufahl’s fiction, it is understated. Muriel’s decision to marry is socially sanctioned, and that privilege is not available to every character in On Swift Horses. That being said, this is not an “issues novel” nor does the author settle into the familiar territory of love and gambling, luck and loss.

And this is not familiar Southwestern US desert literature. Nonfiction readers may know Joan Didion’s talk of the Vegas-chapel industry (in Slouching Towards Bethlehem) or Terry Tempest Williams’s “The Clan of the One-Breasted Women” (2000), which, like Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams (1994), considers the lives of those inhabiting the aftermath of the Nevada testing grounds, the “downwinders.” Fiction readers may recognize Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men (2011), Susan Perly’s Death Valley (2016), Chris Abani’s The Secret History of Las Vegas (2014), or may recall that several of the survivors in Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) headed for Las Vegas — but Shannon Pufahl’s is another sort of story.

Perhaps this sense of new territory rests in this concept: “Love might be made of things that couldn’t happen or things no one knows or intends.” On Swift Horses resides in the improbable but affords an equal importance to active and passive ways of experiencing it: “It could happen to anyone and it could happen a thousand times or only once or never. You had to search for it and you had to allow it.”

In the author’s note published in advance reading copies, Shannon Pufahl shares her appreciation for “many western and biographies of queer heroes” and clarifies her desire to “do something different.” She writes about people “who were ordinary working-class folks finding ways to name the things we needed, in place defined by fantasy, violence, and chance, and in a past largely forgotten in the victories of the present.”

These are the people who often have their backs to the photographers, if they appear in the photographs at all. And these are also the people who know what happens when constraints are erased. When improbability suspends monotony. “How many people are walking the earth this very moment hoping for that feeling?” Pufahl wonders.

The answer is: So many more than we thought. Which is just what a good book does: it reminds us that the world is bigger than we imagined. Shannon Pufahl’s On Swift Horses reminds us that we can “turn the key and drive into the hard-coming rain.” We can lean in, adjust the focus. We can stand and observe or reposition the margins and frame a new narrative.


Marcie McCauley is a graduate of the University of Western Ontario and the Humber College Creative Writing Program.

LARB Contributor

Marcie McCauley is a graduate of the University of Western Ontario and the Humber College Creative Writing Program. She writes and reads in Toronto, Canada, living on traditional territory of the Anishnaabeg, Haudenosaunee, and Huron-Wendat — land still inhabited by their descendants.


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