In Shannon Pufahl’s engrossing, melancholy debut novel, “On Swift Horses,” California feels both scrubbed new and thick with storm clouds.
It’s 1957, and a young couple, Lee and Muriel, are planting stakes in San Diego, making a fresh start well away from their roots in Kansas. They are, as Pufahl writes, “learning slowly how to be modern.” Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Lee’s drifter brother, Julius, watches the mushroom clouds of nearby A-bomb tests as he tries to shed his old skin as a thief and begin legit work in a casino. Sputnik orbits above everybody, at once a wonder of new technology and a portent of a deepening Cold War.
It’s practically axiomatic that every story set in 1950s America must be a critique of its squeaky-clean surfaces. “On Swift Horses” is no different. But it does it so skillfully — Pufahl’s prose is consistently lyrical and deeply observant. And her keenest observations are about the secrets we keep. Julius is gay, slowly entangling himself in a closeted relationship with a coworker who helps him monitor card cheats from a catwalk above the casino floor. Muriel sublimates her anxiety about her marriage to betting on horses, using tips she overhears at the bar where she works.
Muriel and Julius both play-act as stereotypically straitlaced citizens: Muriel channels her winnings into the new house, and Julius labors for respectability at the casino. But neither can entirely contain their urges, and they get a romantic charge out of their secret lives: For Muriel, a trip to the track delivers a feeling “like happiness but it comes so slowly and so austere she might easily mistake it for grief.” Above the casino pit, Julius revels in the sensuality of his work, “the slender-fingered men, short nails buffed pale, no rings, wide cuffs touching the clefts of their palms.”
The closet isn’t a romantic place, though, and both lives are warped for being lived in hiding. Julius’ lover is forced out of town when their relationship is found out; the men who knew about it “made their knowledge a kind of torture,” Pufahl writes, and Julius begins a somber hunt for his lost love through Southern California and Tijuana. In time, Muriel is entangled in Julius’ search and one of her own.
Pufahl, a former Stegner Fellow living in Monterey, is plainly a fan of the fiercest noirs to come out of the postwar era: “On Swift Horses” contains echoes of Don Carpenter’s “Hard Rain Falling,” Leonard Gardner’s “Fat City” and Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt.”
She admires the genre’s blend of high and low culture, its sharp-elbowed sentences and neon-lit imagery, its vision of hard-luck off-the-grid lives. Just as important, Pufahl’s prose can run with those icons and at times surpass them. A moment of Julius in bed with his lover will have to stand in for the novel’s many crushing, well-turned lines: “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,” she writes. “It is the sound of time itself coming forward and catching them where they stand.”
Metaphors run so thickly over Pufahl’s story that the novel reads as much like a prose-poem commentary on the ’50s as a realistic novel set in it. Sputnik and the A-bomb tests are just the start of it. Julius inherits a palm-sized gun from his lover that evokes both strength and weakness, “a kind of joke about violence, like a stick of dynamite in a cartoon.” In Tijuana, Julius witnesses a man whose heart visibly beats just beneath his skin, “so close and defenseless.” And then there are all those horses, including one Julius deposits on Muriel’s doorstep — symbols of risk, reward and restless spirits.
That sense of unreality can sometimes make Pufahl’s dialogue ungainly. Her style, so rooted in symbol and lyricism, can make her characters sometimes speak as if they were prophets on a whiskey bender. (“What I think is, you can give somebody something, but once you give it that somebody gets to use it for whatever he wants.” “You got to think, this time of year, that what we’re celebrating is the end of pleasure and history.”) Pufahl is so committed to the spell she’s casting that her characters’ voices fall under it too.
Yet it’s a remarkable spell. Pufahl embraces noir’s mood while weaving in a love story. She evokes the fear and possibility of life in a new place, with new emotions. She writes with a grace and force that’s rare even among seasoned writers.
And she’s written a historical novel that feels thoroughly contemporary — in the anxiety of the ’50s, she’s found our own. “How delicate she feels,” Muriel thinks at one point. “How out of time.” We all get to know the feeling.
Riverhead Books: 320 pages, $27
Info: Pufahl will be at Book Soup on Nov. 7.
Athitakis is a Phoenix writer and author of “The New Midwest.”