In Thomas H. McNeely’s breathtaking debut novel, Ghost Horse, Buddy Turner’s family has fragmented around issues of betrayal, class, and race. Father, mother, grandmothers on both sides—these adults repeatedly expose the boy to their anxious misgivings and covert desires. His friends, too, are part of the shifting terrain of 1970s Houston and the products of their own troubled homes. Their interaction is marked by tenderness, violence, and inscrutable sexuality. The Super-8 movie the boys are planning, about a ghostly, rescuing horse, explores both pain and the fantasy of comfort; the film becomes—like narrative itself—a shared goal, an escape, and one of several weapons the boys end up using against each other.
Released in October 2014, Ghost Horse is the recipient of the 2013 Gival Press Novel Award. The book has already been widely praised by critics, but my favorite remarks come from Stephen Burt, author of Belmont and Close Calls with Nonsense: “McNeely’s prose—superbly attentive to what goes on in Buddy’s head, and why—sets up scenes few readers will forget: it’s a novel whose beautiful sentences match the wrong-way turns, the blood-red futilities, and the available insights, of its rough lives.”
McNeely’s writing has an incantatory feel as Buddy ruminates over significant memories, testing them for accuracy and insight. What is real? is an implied question throughout. The book takes an unflinching look at how one’s perception of oneself, others, and the world is formed—and how on earth we might begin to make sense of it all.
McNeely grew up in Houston and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, where he reviewed films for The Daily Texan. After college he became an investigator for The Texas Resource Center, a public interest law firm that represented death row prisoners during their appeals. This experience became the basis for his first published story, “Sheep,” which appeared in the Atlantic while McNeely was still an MFA student at Emerson College. He went on to receive several awards, including the Wallace Stegner Fellowship. McNeely currently teaches in the Stanford Online Writers’ Studio and the Emerson College Honors Program.
The Rumpus: You set Ghost Horse in Houston in the mid-1970s, and this unforgettable place plays a heavy role—neighborhoods near Rice University vs. neighborhoods near Hughes Tool, parochial schools (exclusive and less-so), freeways, vacant lots, oil barges, chain-link fences, dogs kept in pens. And everything about this setting feels inextricable from issues of race and class. Can you talk a little bit about Houston during the time of the book and how it inspired you?
Thomas H. McNeely: As everyone is, I am haunted by the place I grew up. Buddy, the protagonist of Ghost Horse, is also at that haunted stage of life, a transition from childhood to adolescence, and of course by his father’s absence—that haunting and absence is central to Ghost Horse.
The Houston of the seventies, at least as it exists in my memory, was a much wilder place than the Houston of today. There was a lot more country to it. The social divisions between whites and African Americans were very rigid, as they still are. One factor that upset this rigid division was the emergence of a Latino middle class that started to move into white neighborhoods. The Joe Campos Torres case, which is referenced in the book, was an intersection of this country lawlessness and the growing economic and political power of the Latino middle class. A group of police officers drowned Torres, a Mexican national, in the bayou, and there were riots in Fonde Park, where a scene in the book is set.
That was one aspect of that wildness and lawlessness. Another was the Dean Corll murder case, at the time the largest serial killing in U.S. history, which is also referenced in Ghost Horse. The majority of Corll’s victims were from a ten-block area in a low-income neighborhood called The Heights. This went on for years, and the police did very little, because those boys were expendable.
Those stories formed my view of the world—there was a very clear sense, depending on your race and class, whether you were safe. That’s right there on page one of Ghost Horse—Buddy feels safe, but Alex, his Latino friend, doesn’t. I tried to capture some of that feeling—and also the vastness of Houston, the huge industrial open spaces that seemed haunted and super-human and almost magical to me—they still do.
Rumpus: Those murdered boys are the ones Buddy keeps imagining he hears. It’s such a powerful, frightening element of the piece—Buddy is most likely protected from many things, moreso than Alex and even the abused Simon, but the presence of the dead boys suggests a vulnerability to all boyhood that gets played out over and over in the book. Buddy’s own vulnerability at turns becomes cruel, generous, guilty, sexual, desperate, sad—all rooted in his own wrenching and wretched family circumstance. Did you have in mind the particular vulnerability of boys as they come of age when you started? Why do you think coming-of-age novels persist in relevance to so many readers?
McNeely: Thank you for noticing that about Buddy—I worked very hard to explore the facets of his vulnerability in the novel. He is both a victim and an abuser. He is not an easy character to like, at times—and these are my favorite kinds of characters.
Children live in a world of savagery that seems as foreign to adults as a different planet. In Ghost Horse, I tried to channel that violent, lurid world as best I could. Simon, Buddy’s friend, seems to be the alpha male, the aggressor—but he is really a mirror of Buddy. In a way, Simon is the most interesting character, and I think my favorite character in the book. At school, Simon rules the other boys like a despot; but at home, he himself is a victim. His own aggression is a reaction to his father’s abuse.
What creates the savagery of childhood is, of course, adults’ abuse, spread through children. I think that’s why coming of age novels endure, and will always be relevant, because we look back at that gauntlet we ran through our own childhoods, through conflicts which are never truly resolved, and yet we can view them as if they are foreign. Maybe this is why writers find this territory so fertile—its strangeness and familiarity creates its own world, like fiction itself.
Rumpus: Ghost Horse is a Southern coming of age novel, as is my own recent novel. Did you have particular Southern literary models in mind when you were writing the book? Do you see a difference between coming of age narratives set in the South and in the rest of the country?
McNeely: Oh, yes. Southern coming of age narratives have to carry the extra weight of the South’s racial history, which I definitely had in mind writing Ghost Horse. One of the losses I was trying to capture in the book was the moment, familiar to anyone of my generation who grew up in the South, when one’s friendships with people of different races changed.
This was one of the markers, for me, between the worlds of childhood and adulthood. Before a certain age, adults didn’t really care about whether you were friends with people of other races. But as one grew older, the gulf between the races widened. I don’t think that this was malevolent or even consciously considered on the part of adults; it was just part of one’s acculturation, one’s formation into a white male Southern adult.
As for Southern literary models, I had a couple in mind, books I read when I was not much older than Buddy: Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote; The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers; Flannery O’Connor, especially her great overlooked novel, The Violent Bear It Away. There are other books in there, as well, my first loves, which I read at that age, in forty-five cent paperback editions from my grandmother’s bookshelves: The Catcher in the Rye, 1984, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I had no idea of what any of it meant; I tried to get some of this into earlier drafts of the book, but it seemed pretentious. The medium for Buddy narrating his own life, for his growing self-awareness, became the movies.
Rumpus: Right. Movies rarely seem pretentious—unless you call them films. The use of movies in the novel, both watching them and making them, is a vehicle for thinking about your young characters’ developing sense of personal memory, self-consciousness, and moral sensibilities. How do you think media affects the way children come to know themselves? And what shifts about our experiences with media as we grow older?
McNeely: I often think about what my eight-year-old daughter’s ability to instantly replay her own experience, to be the star of her own experience, does to her sense of herself. The Luddite in me is inclined to think it’s nothing good, but it may just be a different tool of self-consciousness.
On the other hand, though, she is being reflected back to herself in the company of all of these perfect-looking people on her iPad. And in my students, I see a different sense of privacy and selfhood—they seem both less concerned about privacy, which seems like an ever more quaint concept, and at the same time stunted in their ability to connect with each other. Capitalism’s victory in commodifying interaction is fairly complete, at least in American middle-class culture. Charles Baxter has a phrase in one of his recent stories—”the post-zombie affect”—and that seems about right to me. I can’t really imagine what my daughter’s sense of self or of her relationships with other people is going to become.
In Ghost Horse, I made a fairly conscious decision to avoid media that was in any way contemporary. For example, if I had set it a few years later, it would have been plausible for Buddy to use a video camera, which would have meant that he could record and play back scenes much more easily. But it was important to me to convey the texture of that time—because I do think that how we record our experience affects how we view it—and also for reasons I don’t entirely understand, to let his recording of his own experience be as if it were a movie, not an actual movie. I don’t think it would have worked as a trope of his world view and self-consciousness if I made it actual.
Rumpus: There’s something about the immediate play-back, isn’t there? That experience of having oneself reflected back instantly, like you’re talking about with your daughter. I sometimes think about the difference between performance art and creative art (not that performance art isn’t creative—it is) and feel like media has turned us all into performers, even reluctant ones. I think about myself doing my ZOOM chat with my online students. Now I’m keeping lipstick in my desk drawer because I have to watch myself talk to my students—we all appear on-screen, like those opening shots of The Brady Bunch. Without lipstick there’s definitely a zombie “affect” (not exactly what Charles Baxter means). Watching yourself in action is different than just being in action. In some way, Buddy’s creating the movie and not being able to watch it as it goes is more like an offering. There’s—I guess you could call it—space between the creation of it and the viewing/evaluation. Now it seems we’re forced to do both at the same time. As a writer, it’s so hard, on a computer, not to revise as you revisit the pages of the previous day. This can be toxic for a second-guesser like me.
McNeely: I know what you mean about revision—I tend to go back and fiddle and fuss—though my experience with Ghost Horse, in which I ended up doing a major last-minute revision that I think changed the book for the better, has somewhat broken me of this habit, I hope.
One reader of Ghost Horse said to me that they thought Buddy seeing his life as a movie was evidence of trauma-induced dissociation. As I understood Baxter’s “zombie” quote (it’s in a recent story, “Ghosts”), he was talking about this affect as a kind of personal style peculiar to our times, perhaps the result of so much social trauma—9/11, environmental disaster, the endless wars. But I think it’s also a result, for upper- and middle-class Americans, at least, of being overexposed, of always being “on,” as you say, in this vast narcissistic technological echo chamber.
I often think about what this has done to writing—this loss of a sense of privacy. Many people, like George Saunders, are writing about this, but I wonder what it is doing to the traditional coming-of-age narrative, for example, in which the character experiences an internal change. Alice Munro has been remarkably prescient in exploring how her characters perform their identities, how an internal self is both elusive, easily misplaced, and all the more vital at this time.
Rumpus: Interesting to think in terms of social trauma—and to think of it in conversation with more private, personal trauma. I know you’ve experienced some dramatic personal events in the last ten years—how did these experiences affect Ghost Horse?
McNeely: Personal trauma certainly played into writing this book, on many levels. My father committed suicide in 2003, about three years into my writing Ghost Horse. I was in the second year of my Stegner. I remember talking to Elizabeth Tallent and telling her that I didn’t know who I was writing the book for anymore. It took me a long time to figure out what that really meant.
In a strange way—and this may sound very cold-blooded—my father’s suicide allowed me to write the book. Before he died, I was writing it to him—a kind of instant feedback that wasn’t very helpful to the book—and after he died, it became a way to try to communicate with him, which wasn’t very helpful for the book, either.
Though the book is very autobiographical, I had to let go of the characters as stand-ins for real people, as conduits for reaching people who were absent in my life, especially my father. It was a long struggle to do this, both emotional and artistic, and I think that really only in the final revision, many years later, did I reach this goal. Though it is a very personal book, I realized that it had to become impersonal for it to work artistically. I had to let go of the idea that it was a means of communicating with him and with a whole host of other ghosts—even though I think that is what it is. But that is only its personal meaning.