Kathryn Scanlan is a master of distilling found truths into compelling fictions. In her first novel, Aug 9 – Fog, she artfully conjures a singular portrait of life-sized ordinariness by rearranging fragments from a diary, once belonging to an eighty-six-year-old woman, that she found in an estate sale in rural Illinois. In The Dominant Animal, a collection of forty haunting pieces of flash fiction, she strips our experience of being human down to its essential eeriness and basest cruelties. Now, with Kick the Latch—her second novel and likely most propulsive work to date—Scanlan once again brings to light the touching strangeness of everyday mundanity, offering herself up as the medium for a midwestern woman named Sonia whose real-life experiences as a horse trainer are here presented as a fictionalized account of brutality, camaraderie, toil, and trouble on the racetracks.
Written in short, vignette-length chapters, Kick the Latch follows Sonia from the setback of her birth in 1962, when she came into the world with a dislocated hip and a doctor’s prescription for a lifelong impairment—”turned out I could walk”—into the contentment of a middle age that follows only a fulfilled, well-loved youth. In the course of just over a hundred and sixty pages, it bites clean through the flesh of her experience and into the rind, journeying across the development of her passion for horses and the adolescent years of mucking at local stables; through training, hungrily, at the provincial tracks leading to the wealthy realms of the Florida racing circuit; and into the quieter years of a present spent as a correctional officer and flea market vendor.
Though this account is full of wounds, losses, and hardships, the Sonia who emerges herein speaks of them with the kind of sinewy, bracing directness you would expect of a complete stranger sitting across from you at the bar. Describing an episode where a jockey breaks into her trailer and rapes her—a seventeen-year-old and an apprentice—at gunpoint, she presents, bluntly and stoically, her decision to keep her silence and her job. “I knew exactly who it was, it was bad, but anyway I survived. I cut my hair real short after that.”
Later, when speaking of a friend who broke her neck while galloping a young pony, or another who jokingly told her of his plans to kill himself before doing exactly that, or even the accident that sent her own body “bottom of the pile” on the racetrack and into a long coma, she foregoes all shows of sentimentality to paint a picture of just what life was. Her matter-of-factness belies any notes of repression, coming off instead as expressive of a particular way of life where pain is commonplace and not allowed to gain authority. It happens to the horses and it happens to the people around them, “grooms, jockeys, trainers, racing secretaries, stewards, pony people, hot walkers, everybody”—all part of the business.
Such consideration of trauma—as mere happenstance rather than a defining feature of life—may be used to obscure a character’s emotional landscape elsewhere in literature. However, in Kick the Latch, it bolsters our reading of Sonia as an individual, and of the things she holds dear. Though she speaks with brevity her eye is unsparing. Her words, too, flow as if in an intimate conversation she is having with us, so that from amidst her recollections of the violence of the jockeys and the punishing hours of work, the dilapidated trailers and threatening motels, the injured animals taken out back, and the names and faces who disappear forever emerges a sprightly image of tenderness: of the community that formed around her “racetrack family,” all eating together, and frequenting the same stores, laundromats, pubs, and bars—they even had a band—and of the horses who, according to her own claims, were the ones that “raised her.” Pain may be everywhere in the rugged landscape she inhabits, but so is compassion—and we, as readers, do not ever have to go looking for it.
Indeed, it is because of Sonia’s spareness and not despite it that her story appears to unspool itself with such honesty and intricacy in the readers’ consciousness. She emerges through these pages as a sort of figurehead for authenticity, both sober and compassionate, and her economy allows Scanlan—whose authorial hand is entirely invisible throughout the book and casts not a single shadow of invention on the narrator—to pursue through her an appreciation for the extraordinariness of the ordinary, something that sits at the foundation of her craft along with an exemplary skill for compression.
In one of the shortest chapters in the book, comprising only fifteen words, Sonia declares of the racetrack: “You’re around some really prominent people and some are just as common as old shoes.” It is clearly these old shoes that fascinate her and the author; it is their stories, however fleeting, that offer themselves up to our attention and empathy. Characters like Bicycle Jenny, a kooky neighbor from Sonia’s childhood; Thorby, a fellow trainer who “was gentle but when he got drunk he’d pick a fight with a cigarette machine or a jukebox”; and Dark Side, the one-eyed horse whom she obtains for “kill-price” and rehabilitates to victory, are the ones who take up most space in Sonia’s compressed narrative, even when they may exist closer to the periphery and disappear completely the moment after they are first introduced. The idea of what matters in a story is here distorted to accommodate chance and banality at the front and center, which is often where they sit in real life. So much happens, and yet nothing does—everything passes by in a matter of seconds, in a matter of sentences, and leaves in our hands the imprint of a life. In the end, it is as if we’ve taken the stranger from the bar home and made friends with her, as if we have spent all our years together.
In fact, the narrative that is Kick the Latch is gleaned from a series of interviews that Scanlan conducted with Sonia over a course of three years. Part of what makes this book such a brilliant read is how the former disappears from it altogether, expertly concealing her own voice and labor of transcription and creative reconstruction, so that it is only at the end—in an afterword that feels like a revelation—that we are reminded of her presence as the author and intermediary. And though Scanlan here takes her cue from experimental writers such as fellow Americans Lydia Davis, George Saunders, and Willy Vlautin, as well as the Chilean poet Alejandro Zambra, Kick the Latch is a novel like none other—if you would even call it a novel, or a work of fiction. It feels more like a card trick—one where the magician disappears completely and allows the cards to dance for themselves—or better, an act of literary ventriloquism: the work may be hers, but the words come directly from the horse(trainer)’s mouth. And dance they do, each move performed with stunning, reverberating, unforgettable precision.