On Swift Horses, by Shannon Pufahl

In the past, I’ve described books as slow burns. What I usually mean is that, as I read them, I can get a sense of a lit fuse at the center of the book. There are little sparks, gathering speed, usually towards some kind of dramatic explosion. The tension draws me along because I want to see what happens when the tinder lights. Shannon Pufahl’s On Swift Horses never really lights my fire. This is a slow book. It’s also a very subtle one. In this novel, two LGBT characters carefully navigate their desires whilst keeping their secret in late-1950s California. For me, this book moves too slowly and is so subtle that I’m not sure I picked up everything that Pufahl put down in its pages.

Julius and Muriel recognize something in each other one hot summer day in Kansas. Julius and his brother, Lee (Muriel’s fiancé), will join the navy and head off for Korea. They have plans for the future. For that moment, on that summer afternoon, they feel a close but ineffable kinship. This is the last time they will really, fully connect. After her wedding, Muriel and Lee prepare to set up some kind of farm or orchard in California. Julius is rootless after his discharge from the navy; he breaks up the family plan and lights out for Las Vegas. From that moment of connection, Muriel and Julius barely cross paths. They only see each other when Julius drops by, leaves an alleged mustang (even though they don’t have a fence or a stable), and steals Muriel’s hidden stash of winnings from horse races.

Although their paths don’t physically cross, Julius and Muriel end up on parallel paths: seeking love. Julius is well aware that he is a gay man although, like every other person with same-sex attraction, he can’t actually put his feelings into words. He and all the other gay men in On Swift Horses operate in code and looks, all colored by the fear of retribution from the straight people that surround them. Muriel is not as aware of her sexuality as Julius. All she knows is that she doesn’t really love her husband. She went along with his plan to go with California but she never seems settled. She really only comes alive when she’s away from Lee, as when she best on the horses or when, in a moment of irresistible rightness, she kisses a woman for the first time.

Julius and Muriel are seekers. There’s nothing wrong with a book about seeking. I just wish that the pace hadn’t been so slow, or that I had been able to fully sympathize with the protagonists. Julius’ sudden moments of violence put me off. They came out of nowhere for me and never seemed justified. Muriel frustrated me—but I recognize this one as my problem, as I have a really hard time with people and characters who don’t know what they want beyond the fact that they don’t want what they have. All that said, Pufahl has beautiful writing and it’s nice to read a novel with LGBT characters (especially set in the middle of the twentieth century) in which love interests don’t die to add poignancy.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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