On Swift Horses

On Swift Horses

by Shannon Pufahl


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A Lambda Literary Award Finalist, 2020.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525538110
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/05/2019
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 775,714
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Shannon Pufahl grew up in rural Kansas. She teaches at Stanford University, where she was a Stegner Fellow in fiction. Her essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review and elsewhere, on topics ranging from John Brown and the antebellum Midwest, to personal memoir. She lives in the Bay Area with her wife and their dog.

Reading Group Guide

1. With Muriel’s racetrack betting, Julius’s casino work, and even Lee’s investment in property, risk and gambling play a large role in the book. How does the novel’s insight into chance and risk illuminate the characters’ relationships?

2. Muriel is reluctant to sell her mother’s house in Kansas to help fulfill Lee’s dream of buying land in California. What does owning property mean for her as a woman in that era? How does it affect her relationship with Lee? How might her reluctance also be tied to her relationship to her forward-thinking mother?

3. The story is set primarily in the American Southwest in the late 1950s. How do various historical elements—the recent end of the Korean War, the testing of bombs in the desert, the misogyny and legal repression of homosexuality—shape the characters’ lives?

4. Julius prides himself on doing honest work for the casino, but ultimately lies to protect Henry. How does Julius justify taking on increasing risks for Henry? After the fallout, how does Julius feel about his decision? What would you do to protect those you love?

5. When Julius leaves Las Vegas, he brings Lee and Muriel a horse, which proves very difficult to tame. What do you make of the sense of obligation Julius felt to bring something, and why do you think he picked a horse? Given the horse’s behavior and the problems it causes for Lee and Muriel, what could the horse represent?

6. Through flashbacks and exchanges of dialogue, the novel explores Julius’ and Lee’s relationship to their father, who became extremely religious when they were young. How were both men shaped by their upbringing—by the poverty they experienced and the early responsibilities they assumed? How does it impact their relationship as adults?

7. Muriel “liked having a secret, but she did not like lying. Lying had erased her from everything.” Muriel and Julius both keep secrets; how does this make each of them feel? How does the burden of keeping or revealing secrets affect Muriel and Julius throughout the book?

8. Sandra, whom Muriel falls in love with, expresses a deep attachment to the land she inherited from her father, and a certain resentment for the new people buying up the valley. How does she view the land and its history, and how might that differ from how Lee and other newcomers see it? Given her feelings, what did you make of the offer she makes to Muriel at the end?

9. In Mexico, Julius uses Henry’s miniature gun to steal from men he seduces: “The tiny gun a kind of joke about violence, like a stick of dynamite in a cartoon.” What does the small gun represent to Julius? Is he wrong to think that the story will travel and lead him back to Henry?

10. At the end of Muriel’s story, she thinks about her mother’s house and seems to formulate a plan: “She thinks of what she might ask Sandra to leave behind and what she will say to Lee.” What do you think her plan might be? Imagine the rest of Muriel’s story, and how her life might have progressed from that point. Where would she be today?

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