A Lambda Literary Award Finalist, 2020.
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Named a Most Anticipated Book of Fall by The New York Times, Real Simple, Electric Literature, and more.
“Cinematic . . . The spaces she creates for her characters . . . have the aura of realms.” —The New York Times Book Review
A lonely newlywed and her wayward brother-in-law follow divergent and dangerous paths through the postwar American West.
Muriel is newly married and restless, transplanted from her rural Kansas hometown to life in a dusty bungalow in San Diego. The air is rich with the tang of salt and citrus, but the limits of her new life seem to be closing in: She misses her freethinking mother, dead before Muriel's nineteenth birthday, and her sly, itinerant brother-in-law, Julius, who made the world feel bigger than she had imagined. And so she begins slipping off to the Del Mar racetrack to bet and eavesdrop, learning the language of horses and risk. Meanwhile, Julius is testing his fate in Las Vegas, working at a local casino where tourists watch atomic tests from the roof, and falling in love with Henry, a young card cheat. When Henry is eventually discovered and run out of town, Julius takes off to search for him in the plazas and dives of Tijuana, trading one city of dangerous illusions and indiscretions for another.
On Swift Horses is a debut of astonishing power: a story of love and luck, of two people trying to find their place in a country that is coming apart even as it promises them everything.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
In Shannon Pufahl’s devastatingly beautiful debut, life is a game of chance and a bit of a cheat. The novel is set after the Korean War in working-class San Diego and Las Vegas, where atomic bomb tests continue in the nearby Nevada desert. Pufahl’s story of the unspoken affinity between young newlywed Muriel—who may love the illicit thrill of horse betting more than she loves her husband—and her tortured gay brother-in-law, Julius, a gambler living the rough life in casinos and bars, unfolds with quiet grace. Reading this book is like slowly unwrapping a great gift. Pufahl unveils her characters’ sad and lovely secrets at a languorous pace and lays bare the lies people tell themselves (and others) in order to survive.
Pufahl's powerful debut follows two brothers just back from the Korean War and the woman from Kansas who loves them both. Muriel agrees to marry Lee not long after he and his brother, Julius, step off their ship in Long Beach, but it's Julius with whom she finds a haunting affinity. When he disappears, both Muriel and Lee live for word from him again. Muriel and Julius are gamblers; Muriel overhears horse betting tips from men who drink at the Heyday Lounge in San Diego where she works. Muriel wins enough at the Del Mar racetrack to buy her husband the lot on which he builds their dream house. Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Julius falls in love with Henry, a tender card cheat who's run out of town. Desperate to find him, Julius returns to his brother's house, steals money from Muriel, and goes in search of him. Muriel, in turn, searches for Julius, and finds herself instead. SoCal's illicit gay joints, Mexico, and memories of Kansas are finely wrought, though by the time Muriel discovers that the mystery Julius represents actually resides deep inside her own self, Pufahl's gorgeous metaphors and heartbreaking revelations may make readers feel like less is more. Peopled by singular characters and suffused with a keen sense of time and place, Pufahl's debut casts a fascinating spell. This melancholy story will show up in the dreams of those whose heartstrings it has tugged.