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Review of “Kick the Latch” by Kathryn Scanlan


When I was a kid, my grandmother and I played a game that involved walking around her neighborhood pretending to be aliens, from a planet called Algernon, trying to discern the nature of every object we saw. . That garden hose? It was a snake that spat poisonous tears from its rusty mouth. Those tree roots? They were the gnarled fingers of a sleeping giant under the pavement.

Nothing has brought back the thrill of those walks – the pleasures of unearthing the strangeness of the mundane – as vividly as reading the prose of Kathryn Scanlan, who describes a suburban house and its garden cottage as “two of the same animal, big and small”. , adult and juvenile”, or an ordinary pie like a resting wild creature: “The thing that I have done is to rest. It has a powder that I don’t like to mess with, but I cut it out and put it between us. The “thing” and its odd pronouns, the flippant violence of its dissection, the baby-beast lurking in a playhouse – all of these turns of phrase are saturated with the quiet menace that Scanlan brings to his bizarre evocations of life. daily. Scanlan creates art about ordinary life – ordinary people, ordinary days, ordinary events – by twisting it: she twists narrative arcs based on jagged arrangements of anecdotes, twists her descriptions with unsettling similes and deforms time by stretching it like taffy or by compressing it. in burning moments. His work deals with moments and lives, but rarely with the intermediate units (days, weeks, years) that make up most narratives.

Scanlan’s books are difficult to fit into traditional genre categories. His debut album, “Aug 9-Fog,” released in 2019, consists of scraps taken from a diary Scanlan found at an estate sale. He recounts a year in the life of an eighty-six-year-old woman in rural Illinois, seasons spent tending to a home and caring for a dying husband: “He called. Not so good. Bleed again. Try knitting a pincushion. The following year, Scanlan published a collection, “The Dominant Animal”, which reduced the short story to its bare minimum: forty stories in just one hundred and forty pages. These narrative fragments lay bare the menace and despair that lurk in mundane moments: a boy putting his hand between his cousin’s legs; a constipated boyfriend who tries to eat enough salami to “force him out”; a daughter bending down to pick up her mother’s stray white hair after an air conditioner was late installed. (“It couldn’t help her because she was dead.”) Animals are everywhere — as mysteries, nuisances, accomplices — but the human characters, as the book’s title suggests, are the most animalistic. of all. The stories are ironic, surprising and wild, full of mischief and hunger, where “Aug 9-Fog” is full of pragmatism, curiosity and silent engines of domestic wonder.

Scanlan’s new book, “Kick the Latch” (New Directions), interweaves the dark threads of violence that run through “The Dominant Animal” with the unsentimental healing rituals that anchor “Aug 9-Fog.” “Kick the Latch” is perched ambiguously between novel and oral history. In an author’s note, Scanlan calls it a “work of fiction” based on interviews she conducted with Sonia, an Iowa-born horse trainer. The book chronicles Sonia’s life in a series of vignettes that unfold through the feverish, intoxicating dream of the world of horse racing, as Sonia travels from race to race, living in trailers and motels. It is a landscape full of exhausting work and habitual violence, but also of ecstatic devotion and joy. Sonia trains a one-eyed horse named Dark Side to victory; a racetrack band called the Bug Boys (singer jockey, drummer trainer) play in local bars; priests come to bless the legs of the horses. Ephemeral characters are sketched with ruthless but often affectionate attention: “Thorby was gentle but when he got drunk he fought with a cigarette machine or a jukebox.

The idea that ordinary life can be the subject of great art has long been accepted in poetry and literary fiction – in these genres its status as a worthy subject seems self-evident – but it can still raise problems in creative non-fiction. An invented life may be ordinary, but a real it would be better if life were seasoned either by extraordinary sufferings or by special achievements. Scanlan, however, is almost instantly drawn to the ordinary. The shortest thumbnail of “Kick the Latch” is titled “Racetrackers,” and it’s just one line: “You’re surrounded by very important people and some are just as common as old shoes.” Sonia’s own allegiance is clear – to old shoes, jukebox fighters and the Bug Boys.

In all of his books, Scanlan writes about ordinary life in extraordinary ways by radically compacting it, like pressing carbon into diamonds. When Sonia describes the force absorbed by a single hoof with each stride of a horse’s gallop – “a thousand pounds of pressure borne by that slender leg” – she could also be describing Scanlan’s syntax: compact sentences bearing so much pressure. The work is structured by recurring themes: violence and the pleasures of intimacy, the balm and exhaustion of hard work, our links with animals and with our own animality, these surges of desire and aggression that unseat us and reorganize us.

But the effect of Scanlan’s work derives as much from its form as from its content. As with a sculpture, you would be as likely to describe it in terms of form as materials. Reading Scanlan often feels like encountering something akin to Wallace Stevens’ pot on a hill (“it didn’t yield a bird or a bush”): powerful in its presence but hard to penetrate, self-contained and opaque . “I try to write a sentence that is as immutable and fully itself as an object on a shelf,” she said. His prose is coldly efficient, the kind of stripped-back revelation that makes you cringe for more, like asking for a third helping of dessert. Its minimalist style accomplishes a sleight of hand. At first glance, its compression seems to evade the obvious of its making – reluctant in its conciseness, rather than diffusing its artifice. Yet this radical brevity ultimately demands that we see it as a handcrafted thing. The efficiency is both graceful and aloof. The crude repetitions of need and desire become elegant asides; the waste of years becomes a single sentence.

Scanlan, forty-two, lives in Los Angeles but grew up in Iowa. His mother came from a family of farmers, his father from a family of racehorse trainers – the traveling world of races, jockeys and groomers that Scanlan tackles in “Kick the Latch”. His writing is at the confluence of two artistic lines: the art of the ordinary and the art of distillation. One is a tradition of form, the other of content. She is the heir to the poignant laconicism of Lydia Davis and Diane Williams (she has been published many times in Williams’ literary journal, MIDDAY) but also documentary poetry by Charles Reznikoff and Muriel Rukeyser, rural dramatic monologues from Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology” and grotesque character sketches from Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” Scanlan quoted Walker Evans’ statement that his “photography was not ‘documentary’ but ‘documentary style'”, and his description of this aesthetic could also describe his own: it exudes “the raw, immediate feel of unedited daily”, but “you quickly realize how fit he is.”

In “Kick the Latch,” Scanlan’s anecdotes (with titles like “Pickled Boiled Eggs,” “Call Your Owners, Call Home,” and “Gallon of Blood”) don’t quite unfold like a traditional plot, with deep relationships and a story arc. They are more like rosary beads, each being a small contained unit. Born in 1962, Sonia began full-time work on a horse farm right after graduating from high school, riding the circuit with her “racetrack family” – a neophyte amidst “grooms, jockeys, trainers, race secretaries, stewards, ponies, hot walkers, everyone,” all hitting the same grocery stores, laundromats and bars at every stop, for every race. Sonia’s life is tied to the constant and grueling pace of her job: “Feeding at four o’clock, seven days a week.” Jockeys are experts at depriving themselves of minimum weight and maximum speed, a process that is not entirely different from Scanlan’s trade: “Jockeys turn over 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 is Scanlan’s particular know-how: turning the rice but not the beans. Get rid of all the language that is not absolutely necessary but keep the essential details that feed the text, and give it life. The visceral specificity of his writing, by refusing to sanitize our physical presence in the world, makes the ordinary seem strange. It’s like saying a familiar word so many times that it starts to sound like it’s from a foreign language.

Sonia comes across as a compelling character: kind under her gruff exterior, charmed by surprising things (a roasted Thanksgiving turkey in a motel bathroom, for example), dry as a bone and cold as a cucumber, constantly underappreciated. about his own pain. Describing a riding accident that left her in a coma, she simply said, “I was at the bottom of the pile. When Sonia finally leaves life at the racetrack, she returns home to care for her sick parents and ends up working as a correctional officer in a maximum security prison. “I tried to be a normal person,” she explains. Yet the racetrack still occupies what WB Yeats might call the heart of its heart. “People say you never get out of your blood,” she remarks. “I still dream about it most nights.”

Whenever Sonia speaks of horses, tenderness runs through her stoicism like vinegar through oil. She describes celebrating her horse Rowdy’s birthday (“frosting on his muzzle”) and nursing a “skin and bones” mustang named Chico, rescued from a rodeo sale: “I have weight on him calm down. She has a soft spot for underdogs who have been pushed aside, abused, insulted or deemed unworthy of care, from horses like Rowdy and Chico and Dark Side to the incarcerated men of the prison where she works. Or like the drunken grandfather who lived in her neighborhood when she was young; she let him stay in her room when her daughter kicked him out.