A first-time novelist explores desire and identity in the mid-20th century.
The year is 1956. Muriel is 21. She lives in San Diego with her husband, Lee. He’s just been discharged from the Navy and dreams of buying a piece of land in a part of California that is just being developed. Muriel has made no secret of her lack of interest in this plan; what she does keep secret, though, is her passion for betting on horses. One of her waitressing jobs is in a bar frequented by retired jockeys, bookies, and other habitués of the racetrack. She listens to their gossip, makes canny wagers, and passes off her winnings as tips. Muriel’s success gives her a sense of control and possibility, and the fact that she keeps her gambling from her husband gives her a sense of independence. Marriage is not quite what she expected it to be. When she agreed to move to California, it was on the understanding that Lee’s brother, Julius, would be coming with them. Lee is solid and reliable and clearly devoted to her, but it's Julius who inspires her to imagine a world larger and more exciting than the one she's known. Instead, Julius wanders the West until he lands in Las Vegas. The city suits him. Like Muriel, he’s a gambler, but he also discovers that Las Vegas is a place where his sexuality does not make him conspicuous. Pufahl presents a vision of the 1950s that is distinctly at odds with the idea that this decade was an American golden age. She reminds us that there has never been a time when women didn’t work outside the home and that, in our nostalgic remembering of that era, we tend to elide the bigotry and oppression experienced by many. More than that, though, Pufahl offers exquisite prose. Her style is slow and deliberate but also compelling because her language is so lyrical and specific. Consider Muriel’s first glimpse of the thoroughbreds: “They are tall and obdurate and only lightly controlled.” The book is filled with such rhythmically lovely, splendidly evocative, and masterfully precise descriptions. In these moments, it feels like Pufahl could not possibly have said what she needed to say with any other words.
Fiction to linger over.