Title: On Swift Horses
Author: Shannon Pufahl
Genre: Fiction/Historical Fiction/LGBT lit
Publication date: 11/05/19
On Swift Horses is a haunting and beautiful historical fiction set in the late 1950s. It follows the story of Muriel, a newly married waitress from Kansas who with her new husband, Lee, has set out to San Diego to make a new life. Intertwined with it and in parallel to it, is the story of Julius, Lee’s brother, a drifter, gambler, petty thief, and a gay man. Although she doesn’t originally know what it is about Julius that draws her in, Muriel recognizes the otherness of him that is growing slowly within herself and is fascinated.
The story is a coming into self-possession for Muriel, as she uses the gossip of her jockey patrons at her work to bet on racehorses eventually winning enough for build a home in California and start a future together with Lee, at least until she discovers that perhaps perfect domesticity is not at all what she wants. Muriel is a woman who lost her mother young and cut adrift, follows the script that was left for her. She finds a serious young man back from the war and sets about building a world of obligations to tie herself down and build walls so that her life will make sense again. It doesn’t begin to become about joy until she discovers that the otherness she admires in Julius is in her too.
Meanwhile, Julius is a man only at home on the edges. The war and the difficulties he faced in the navy due to his closeted lifestyle have made him cynical and unwilling to settle. He spends much of the book fruitlessly chasing after his gay lover in a search that is both haunting and endlessly hopeful.
The book is a beautiful read, lyrical and evocative even as it takes the post-war idealism and scratches away the gilt, looking straight into the eyes of atomic tests, the rapidly chilling cold war, gay men struggling to not be constantly at the fringes, and women striving to be seen.
I admit that I spent much of the book in pleasant confusion, drifting along on the lyricism and sweet melancholy. I also despite my best efforts began to dislike Julius, I kept wanting him to take charge of his life, instead of repeating the same mistakes, but that didn’t happen, and honestly, I don’t think it should have, that’s not what his story was about. On the other hand, I was deeply engrossed in and enchanted with Muriel’s journey of self-discovery, her bald fearlessness, and her determination.
If you like historical fiction from this era I cannot recommend it enough, it’s really a peek behind the curtain of all the huge momentous happenings of the era into the smaller happenings of little lives that are just as momentous. I’ll also say I went into the book knowing I’d rather burn money than gamble with it, so while the window into the world of gambling and betting was fascinating it really only cemented my desire to never ever gamble.