Shannon Pufahl’s debut novel, “On Swift Horses,” chases after risk in its many forms. It dramatizes the exhilarating risk involved in gambling — in walking up to the window at a racetrack and handing over “money to improbability.” It makes felt the risk of belief, especially when belief, in God or in another, is “frangible and strange and not easily resolved by the figurative.”
Most consistently, it explores the risk of desire: what perils come from admitting and articulating who and what we want. Desire, Pufahl writes, “is a door one opens,” and we can never be sure what that door will open onto: pain or pleasure, heartache or ecstasy.
But the greatest risk run in “On Swift Horses,” a risk that Pufahl consistently meets, is the risk of style. There’s a boldness of diction and imagery, a stateliness of voice and rhythm, that resembles less the product of an MFA workshop than the cadences of the King James Bible. Pufahl has a story to tell — about queer love and the American 1950s and queer love in the American 1950s — but she’s less a storyteller than a stylist. That can be a risky thing to be. Style draws attention to itself, and what is attended to can be mocked: for its pretension, for its peacockery.
Pufahl’s sentences, though, unashamedly soar. At one point, she sketches San Diego’s sky and landscape: “A lea of clouds passes over and catches the sun. The ground beneath them darkens. In this new light the yard seems burned at the edges as if the ground had sunk there hot and all at once and then filled through the night, not with dirt but with groundwater, seeped up from the earth the way gold was said to in the book of Daniel.” That last sentence, building in music and beauty and allusive power as it proceeds, is as good as any I’ve read this year. Later, Pufahl more sparely but still remarkably describes a woman standing in a light drizzle: “In the rain she is dark and young, the way rain turns people back to children.”
Of a horse’s movement, Pufahl writes, “She moves straight forward and her march draws dust which rises motely around her.” Almost everything you need to know about “On Swift Horses” lies in that one word, “motely,” which transforms a noun (a mote of dust) into an adverb. It’s a risky choice, an almost-but-not-quite over-the-top choice, and it absolutely works.
“On Swift Horses” gets its title from Isaiah —“‘We will ride on swift horses’ —Therefore those who pursue you shall be swift!” — and it tells two stories of desire pursued and fled from. First, we meet Muriel, a young woman who grew up in midcentury Kansas with an unconventional mother. The first woman in her county to own a car and get a divorce, Muriel’s mother “was Catholic but would not attend any Mass where the women weren’t allowed to wear pants.” (Of the church Muriel and her mother attend, Pufahl writes, “In a region so Lutheran and sane the church was an excess more unsettling than disliked, as if its beauty were a mandate on God’s own aesthetic.”)
After her mother’s death, Muriel, 19, embraces a life of relative conventionality, marrying a man named Lee and moving with him to newly developing San Diego. Out West, she makes a home and works as a waitress, overhearing horsemen tell tales “of fiasco and anomaly” at the track.
Muriel secretly begins playing the ponies herself. She isn’t sure why besides the delightful, unlikely risk of the thing: “The money has been abstracted into something else, something terrifically unlike her.” Muriel becomes strange to herself: hiding things from her husband; feeling an erotic charge, one she can’t understand and won’t admit, when she’s with other women.
Pufahl alternates Muriel’s narrative with that of Julius, her brother-in-law. Julius has led a life of shambling dissolution. He plays cards; he disappears for long stretches; he makes promises that he doesn’t keep. He’s also gay, and Pufahl leads us into the seedy yet somehow utopian spaces — old hotels and abandoned buildings and parked cars — in which queer folk met, mingled, danced, and loved in postwar America.
Muriel senses Julius’s queerness but lacks the language, and perhaps the courage, to name it. To do so would be to risk admitting things about herself: why she’s unhappy in her marriage; how she’s attracted to women. “Fear is the first part of desire,” Pufahl writes, and “On Swift Horses” follows Muriel and Julius as they negotiate the hazards of naming and acting upon desire.
It’s a dramatic story set in a dramatic period of national history. The Korean War is over. (Lee was ignominiously discharged after a fight with a former lover.) In Las Vegas, bombs are tested in the distance while “on the rooftops men in tuxedos sip Atomic Cocktails.”
But this only matters because of the prose. As children, without a mother and with a damaged father, Julius and Lee felt “a loneliness that reached out for some meaningful form so that they might name it and in that way snatch loneliness back from the general world.” A sentence like that justifies an entire novel; “On Swift Horses” offers sentences like that on every page. Pufahl does what great stylists do: she snatches back experience from the general world, making it sing in all its particularity.
ON SWIFT HORSES
By Shannon Pufahl
Riverhead, 320 pp. $27
Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’