Kathryn Scanlan is a straight shooter. Her stories are short – often no more than a couple of paragraphs long. Her sentences are spare, her syntax is plain, and she restricts herself, for the most part, to everyday diction. She writes about ordinary things: eating and defecating, bad sex and heatstroke, running errands and men who won’t admit they’ve gained weight. There’s nothing sentimental in her work, no superfluous scene setting or filler. Scanlan seems like a woman you can trust. But plain style can be deceptive. We might begin to wonder what the writer has suppressed in paring things back. This is just the effect Scanlan is after. ‘Reduction, compression, silence and absence in a text might,’ she reasons, ‘enable a largeness to expand in the mind of the reader.’
A child is sent to the butcher’s to buy some meat. When she gets there, she can’t remember what cut her mother wanted. Exploiting her indecision, the butcher offers to show her something out back. He leads her to a dirt yard and picks up an iron skillet he has cast himself. For a moment he considers ‘swinging it against the girl’s head but knew the timing was not right’. Eventually she goes back inside, buys some liver and limps back the way she came. Why is she limping? Has the butcher done something unspeakable or has she always walked that way? She arrives home to find that her mother has disappeared. This doesn’t seem to bother her. Days go by: ‘She sat in a dry tub upstairs, eating crackers and thinking.’ Then there’s a section break that functions like a blackout. When the story picks up again, we hear that the girl has married the butcher. ‘Mornings before work, [he] blackened iron and hammered it into shape on his hobbyist’s anvil. He blackened the girl, too, but she was less malleable than he’d hoped, so he kept her out back with the dog.’ We learn of her death only in passing: ‘When the girl died, there was nothing to be done – and the dog sank into a silent dream.’ Did the butcher beat her to death? Probably, but we can’t say for sure.
This story is called ‘Fable’ and appears in Scanlan’s collection of short fiction, The Dominant Animal (2020). Most of the characters in the book are unnamed and live in unidentified places. We’re told only what we need to know about them, and often not even that. Almost every story involves an odd encounter with non-human consciousness. Animals in Scanlan’s work are not symbols or figurations; nor do they provide a notable contrast to humans. From ‘The Baby’: ‘I understand the inappropriateness of comparing a human baby to a squirrel baby. I don’t know why I continue to do so. I cannot help it that a human baby also reminds me of an overfull helium balloon hovering too close to a hot bulb.’ In the title story, the narrator’s neighbour is engaged in a power struggle with his three dogs, ‘a type I hadn’t seen before, very large – larger than the small man – with sharp, narrow snouts and glamorous long hair that framed their faces and gave them the appearance of strange, homely women, though when they barked they sounded like angry men.’ She hears him pleading with them through the wall: ‘I am not a dog, he said. You are a dog.’
Refusing to draw a boundary between the human and the non-human is part of Scanlan’s attempt to show that people are no more complex than any other animal. The stories amplify one another in curious ways. In ‘The Hungry Valley’ a group of children touch their cat’s new litter too soon: ‘The mother ate the kittens in front of them – four soft bodies gulped whole.’ The description takes the reader back to an earlier story in which a woman watches her cancer-ridden mother sleeping:
Here she was – the woman who made me eat until I puked, then made me eat the puke. Wendell always was oversexed – that’s what she said when I told her what my father did. And when she found me playing in the place we dumped our garbage out back, she picked up a chunk of glass and cut my hand open with it. Brenda, she’d said, this is what happens when you play in the garbage. Understand?
Mothers are scary whatever the species.
Scanlan’s new book, Kick the Latch, is based on a series of conversations she conducted with Sonia, a racehorse trainer from Iowa. It’s composed of short, titled monologues in which Sonia – or a version of her, since Scanlan tells us that she has reimagined and rewritten some of the source material – narrates the story of her life, from her birth in Dixon City, Iowa in 1962 up to the present day. The narrative is gappy and by confronting us with a string of discrete vignettes, Scanlan gathers momentum only to break it. ‘I wanted the book to have a kind of concussive force or physical impact similar to the roughness and speed of a race,’ she has said. ‘I think I’m always trying to arrange language in a way that feels blunt, abrupt, alarming, because life often feels that way to me – “you get hit.”’ Sonia does get hit, repeatedly. ‘When I was six we got a big dog, but the dog kept wrapping his legs around me and taking my pants off in the front yard. It wasn’t his fault – he wasn’t fixed and I was the right height.’ The dog is returned to the breeder and replaced with a Shetland pony, who kicks her against the side of the house when she tries to stop him lunging after a couple of mares.
Can you trust a horsewoman? Someone who isn’t put off by this sort of initiation? After high school, Sonia gets a job at a racetrack; she learns to run bandages, to put a mud knot in a horse’s tail, to ride short-iron, crouching over the horse’s withers to take the weight off its back. She lives in a trailer park, gets up at 3 a.m. every morning and walks a mile to reach the stables in time for the 4 a.m. feed. Park Jackson, where she works, is ‘bottom of the barrel’ – ‘all kinds of crap went on.’ The horses she tends to are cheap, worn out or past their prime. Because thoroughbreds bleed from the lungs during intense exercise, some trainers tie wire around the top of their tails to restrict blood flow. Others remove blood from the horse’s jugular using a syringe, squirting it into a milk jug until it’s full.
Unlike Scanlan’s short stories, which dispense with context and explication, Kick the Latch is precisely detailed. Sonia describes the importance of X-raying horses’ hooves to determine where their coffin bones lie before shoeing them: ‘Some horses are low in the heel so they’ll get wedges or mud nails or caulks or blocks.’ These things matter: ‘Galloping, a horse spends a lot of his time suspended in the air – flying, really – or on one foot. When a foot lands, there’s a thousand pounds of pressure held up by that one thin leg, that little hoof the size of a handheld ashtray.’ If an animal’s hoof splits, Sonia allows it to grow out slowly, puts Reducine on a toothbrush and rubs it on the coronet band to stimulate blood flow. She recognises that horses can taste the difference in water from track to track so puts a dash of Coca-Cola in their water to sweeten it up and get them drinking again. She understands that when a horse shits in his food bucket, he’s sending you a message: he’s ill or tired. He won’t want to eat and needs to be coaxed, a handful of nuts at a time. She also lets you in on some tricks of the trade:
On race days, you sprinkle this green powder – it looks like dope – onto a little piece of sheet cotton and light it on fire under the horse’s nose. There’s belladonna in it, among other things. You put a bucket on the ground and drape the horse with a raincoat so he can really steam open his head. All this crap – snot, phlegm, mucus – pours from his nose into the bucket.
Sonia is talking about Asthmador, the same substance Proust was partial to. But this is not the kind of novel in which Marcel is likely to cameo.
Instead, we encounter a cast of gritty individuals, obsessive, damaged and more than a little cracked. A friend of Sonia’s breaks into her tack box and drinks enough leg paint (a palliative laced with alcohol) to pass out (‘I thought he was dead’). The jockeys take cocaine to manage their weight, but that’s the least of it:
They slap on glycerin and cling-wrap and sit in their cars with the heater blasting when it’s a hundred in the shade – they pass out. They go in the hot box – it’s like a refrigerator with a spot on top for your head to stick out. Once, a jock caught on fire when the hot box short-circuited. He had terrible burns all over his body. The jockeys flip their food or they don’t eat at all. They get so good at puking they brag about it – I can flip the rice but leave the beans!
This book is full of broken bones. Sonia’s friend Bobbie Mackintosh is galloping a three-year-old one morning when the horse spooks; Bobbie’s foot gets tangled in the stirrup and she’s dragged along the track: ‘Her neck broke – a hangman’s break. She’d just gotten married the week before … When she woke up she was paralysed except for her arms … The husband dumped her, of course.’ Sonia herself suffers a crushing fall in which she breaks all but two of her ribs, punctures a lung and ends up with heavy internal bleeding. ‘The medics did CPR, they used the shockers … They brought me back, but I was in a coma. I could hear every word but I couldn’t respond … They say your hearing’s the last to go. I thought they would bury me alive.’
Why does she do it? A monologue halfway through the novel serves as a partial justification:
In the early morning when it’s still dark with just a few lights up, you’ll be galloping down the empty track and hear thump, thump, thump, thump – hoofbeats behind you. It’s beautiful. And riders will stand straight up on their horses then – they call it grandstanding. They stand up and stretch out their arms and say, Thought I was a coyote, but I’m all right now.
It’s the most literary passage in the book, the only suggestion of the transcendent moments for which people like Sonia live. A horse weighs about half a ton and you, its tiny passenger, harness all of that power, all of that heft and flesh, through the reins threaded between your fingers.
But what most attracts Sonia to racing is the insulation it offers from the outside world.
The backside [of the racetrack] is a little city. You flash your track licence at the guard shack to get in… Feed dealers sell sawdust, straw, oats, beet pulp, bran, good hay. Tack wagons stock bandages, saddles, medication, leg paints, sweats, freezes, Bowie Clay, sheet cotton, vet wrap. You live at the track, your life is full … You lose touch with the outside. Things change. You don’t hear about world news unless something major happens, because you’re in your own world and you have enough news.
Sonia is exhausted so a vet at the track gives her a B12 shot. She has a fever and another trainer’s mother injects her with cattle antibiotics. She feels right as rain.
When Sonia talks to her family about her work, their eyes glaze over. ‘What? they’d say. Huh? What do you mean?’ ‘There’s a particular language you pick up on the track,’ she explains. It’s a code, a shorthand, a mark of belonging. The trouble with Sonia is her incapacity to adjust, even temporarily, to life off the track. Most people know how to exist in more than one world. If I’m talking to a racing friend, we might lapse into lingo: a certain horse was caught for toe at the top of the hill or genuflected at the back of the last, won with his head in his chest, or was off the bridle a long way out, missed a few early on or travelled like the wrath of God. But I don’t talk that way to my mother.
Being a racetracker becomes a sort of sunk cost fallacy for Sonia. Because she has invested so much in this world, she’s prepared to sacrifice almost anything to remain part of it. She tends to view the abuse she suffers on the track as the price of her belonging. In the book, these episodes are remarkable not so much for the violence they depict as the manner in which Sonia describes them:
Near the end of summer, I woke up in my trailer one night with a man over me. He sneaked in while I was sleeping and put a gun to my head. I got raped.
He was taking pills. He was a jockey trying to cut weight. He told me he’d just shot a dog.
I didn’t say anything because if I’d said something, I would’ve been off the track. My folks would’ve come and got me.
The guy sobered up, I knew him, I seen him every day, I knew exactly who it was – it was bad, but anyway, I survived. I cut my hair real short after that.
She doesn’t excuse the act, but there’s mitigation here: the pills, the struggle to make weight. Jockeys are shown to be both brutal and pitiable. Possessed by hunger and the pressure to perform, they act out in frenzied ways: ‘There were four jockeys who lived together in a trailer. They got a deer out of season once and butchered it in their bathtub.’ Some of the more desperate ones carry a ‘hotshot machine like a flat battery, two-pronged, pocket-size’, which they hide down their pants, and pull out mid-race to shock their horse into speeding up: ‘This jock packs, that jock packs. You’d hear stories about the jock and his girlfriend – how he plugs her in when they’re having sex.’ Sonia isn’t surprised when these men follow their base instincts, when they find themselves incapable of exercising any more self-restraint than the dog who tried to mount her when she was six. Talking about her abusive ex-partner, she is similarly fatalistic:
Steve Silver is in the racing hall of fame, but when he drank he’d beat me. I was with him seven years. He wouldn’t let me go. You work at a racetrack, you get black eyes, bruised, cut up, knocked around – it’s common. Maybe people suspected something but nobody asked. I didn’t want no drama.
Sonia sounds like one of the many narrators from The Dominant Animal who recount sinister incidents in unsentimental one- liners. Here’s an example from a story called ‘Derland’, in which a young girl remembers a scene she witnessed in her aunt’s house:
I saw her once – in her bedroom, on the floor, in her girdle – while Uncle Dick stood at the bureau in his suit and wingtips, sipping from a glass, reading from a folded newspaper. I saw her lean forward to reach for his foot, and I saw the foot toss the hand away like a small, vexing dog. Then, without looking up, he unbuckled himself.
Uncle Dick – he was always unbuckling. He unbuckled all across this great land of ours. Eventually he headed south of the border to continue his life’s work, and was never heard from again.
Sonia has some success at the smaller tracks, but she never makes it as a trainer, not really. After she comes out of her coma, she goes to work at an upscale outfit in Florida as a groom. Nothing could be further from the hard-boiled Midwestern circuit she’s used to; the horses aren’t just healthy, they’re thriving. Every care is taken to keep them sound and prevent injury. The surface on which they train is tended to by a huge crew that works seven days a week. There’s a horse cemetery on the grounds with life-size bronze statues on the graves. When a horse has to travel, a stablehand rides in the trailer with them in case of any upset.
This is a welcome relief from the way animals are treated at the cheaper tracks, but Sonia finds it difficult to assimilate into a world where the trainers wear suits instead of blue jeans. It’s all too slick for her. When a horse takes a dump in his stall, the groom immediately goes in to get the droppings out. ‘It’s not tolerable to a trainer or owner to walk by and see their horse standing in a pile of shit. You can’t use a pitchfork near the animals – they’re too valuable to risk it – so you take the horse out of his stall, then go in and get the piles.’ One day she hears a wealthy owner shrieking outside her horse’s stall. ‘Oh my god, oh my god!’ … ‘There’s a piece of straw in Percival’s tail!’ Sonia has every second afternoon off, but can’t figure out how to fill her free time: ‘I started to think, Wow – this is it? This is terrible. I don’t want to do it no more.’ Paradise syndrome?
Towards the end of Kick the Latch, Sonia leaves racing and returns home to look after her ageing parents. Away from the racetrack, she comes to seem less believable than some of Scanlan’s straightforwardly fictional characters. Part of the problem is the movement of the narrative. Each of the scenarios in which she finds herself seems contrived to prove, in increasingly unsubtle ways, that the world is rigged against women, particularly women like Sonia. Perhaps it is, but there’s no intrigue here, no nuance. She finds work in a factory, gets herself a horse called Chico to ride for pleasure and begins seeing a guy called Baker. He’s outdoorsy and likes to camp. But when she decides to break it off, all hell breaks loose: ‘It’s not over until I say it’s over, he told me, and the next day he tried to kill me in the tack room.’
He came up behind me while I was cleaning Chico’s bridle. He knocked me down, sat on my chest, put a rope around my neck. He squeezed it tighter and tighter and when I’d almost blacked out, he loosened up and let me breathe a little. He was always talking about how much he missed his mother – she died when he was a kid. I was gurgling blood but I said, Your mom, what would she think? That snapped him out of it. He dropped the rope, jumped on his bike, took off.
The police release Baker without charge and he begins to stalk Sonia. She finds her favourite tabby cat hung by a noose at the barn. After seeing Baker crawling on his hands and knees in the paddock where Chico is grazing, she calls the police back. Baker, who, it transpires, has escaped from a federal prison, hides in a barrel of feed, then leaps out and tries to attack one of the officers with a hatchet, before escaping again.
Sonia, as we have come to expect, takes this in her stride. She decides it’s time for a career change, enrols in college and eventually gets a qualification in law enforcement. Baker stays on her mind. When she finds a job in a state penitentiary, one thought consumes her: ‘Maybe one day this sucker will walk through the prison doors and there I’ll be. I’ll say, What took you so long?’ Her attitude towards the sexual advances of the male inmates isn’t dissimilar to her attitude to the coked-up jockeys at the track: ‘Not many females working at a maximum, so the inmates – you can’t blame them. Sexual misconduct, flashing their dicks. You write them up, you ignore it.’ Sonia breaks up a knife fight and manages to restrain and handcuff a prisoner before her colleagues show up: ‘The captain said, Nice job, but don’t let it go to your head. He said, You women are only here because the state mandates it.’
It’s all very bleak, and very neat. Sonia’s unflappability begins to wear a little thin. We want her to react. Perhaps, I began to think, it’s because Sonia is based on a real person that her stoicism seems so implausible. I found myself trawling the internet in search of the real Sonia, the real Steve Silver, googling the names of the horses she trained, searching old online form guides and stud lists. There was nothing; the names had been changed. Or maybe even that is a fiction and none of these people ever existed.
Does this matter? Whether or not it’s drawn from life, a novel needs to convince us of the story it’s telling. Late in the book, after many years have passed, the police discover Baker’s decomposing corpse in the field behind the stable. ‘They said his heart exploded,’ Sonia tells us. ‘He’d been waiting for me to come back.’ Why is this so hard to take seriously? It’s difficult to believe that Baker has been waiting in a paddock for Sonia all this time, let alone that his heart ‘exploded’, and it doesn’t square with Scanlan’s usual distaste for the outlandish and exaggerated.
The strangest episode in the book concerns Kellie Lankershim, a local news anchor who disappears the week after Baker tried to strangle Sonia.
That bitch reminds me of my old girlfriend, Baker would say when we watched the six o’clock news. He kept a picture of the girlfriend in his wallet and showed it to me once. She did look a lot like Kellie Lankershim – blonde, cute, big dimples.
Her apartment was in a complex by the river where one of Baker’s doper friends lived. Baker’s doper friend had a white van. The morning Kellie disappeared, someone saw a white van peeling out of the parking lot where Kellie’s purse and keys were found.
When I heard that, I went to the police station and told them what I knew. But they didn’t listen to me and they never found her.
Kellie Lankershim doesn’t exist, but Jodi Huisentruit, a news anchor from Mason City, Iowa did. She was abducted outside her home in June 1995 and her body was never found. When the police arrived at the scene, they found Huisentruit’s Mazda abandoned in the parking lot of her apartment block: a bent car key, a red shoe, a can of hairspray and a pair of earrings were scattered nearby. Some of Huisentruit’s neighbours reported a white van near the car park that morning. It’s not clear what place Scanlan’s version of the story has in the novel, and finding a plausible referent only confirms that, by this point in the book, she is no longer in control of her material. The case doesn’t tell us anything about Sonia, who has long since lost her emotional hold on the reader. I don’t know what’s next for Scanlan, but I hope it’s not a thriller.
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