Fourth Estate is rightly very excited about this 1950s-set debut which opens with Muriel, recently moved to San Diego with her new husband, taking a job in a diner where she eavesdrops on her customers—the ex-jockeys and trainers of the Del Mar racetrack. She begins to bet—and win—but keeps this secret. Meanwhile her brother-in-law Julius works for a Las Vegas casino where he falls in love with card-cheating Henry. A novel about gambling in all its forms, for money and for love, which also illuminates a hidden queer side of recent US history.
On Swift Horses is worth reading for the poetry alone. Pufahl teaches creative writing at Stanford University, which helps explain how her first novel can be quite so accomplished, but even so the prose is unexpectedly graceful: quietly lyrical and self-assured. Every word is considered; every sentence has a shape. Some passages of description are so well designed that they contain linguistic echoes binding them together, like extended visual rhymes. (On a residential street, we see women slop out wash water into their front gardens, then their children “spillfrom stoops and curbs” into the road.)
Pufahl has a talent for intricacy. Her characters are complex and mysterious. Their interactions are dense with intelligence. Her dialogue is tight and finessed and reads like a third or fourth book. The richness of her descriptions of place plunge the reader into the landscape she has chosen: “The mornings in San Diego have a particular tang, the ocean air sweetened by the drift of tanker fumes.”/ “The rain has let off and the town smells of offing and cooked meat and burned lavender.”