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Home GAMING Review of "Kick the Latch" by Kathryn Scanlan

Review of “Kick the Latch” by Kathryn Scanlan

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

Nothing has brought back the thrill of these rides, the pleasures of digging the strangeness out of banality, as sharply as reading the prose of Kathryn Scanlan, who describes a suburban home and her backyard playhouse as “two of the same animal.” , big and small”. , adult and young”, or an ordinary cake like a wild creature at rest: “What I have done is resting. There’s a dust on it that I don’t like to stir up, but I cut it off and put it between us. The “thing” and its lurid pronouns, the casual violence of its dissection, the lurking baby beast of a playhouse: all of these turns of phrase are saturated with the quiet menace Scanlan brings to his bizarre evocations of everyday life. Scanlan makes art about ordinary life (ordinary people, ordinary days, ordinary events) by distorting it: distorting narrative arcs by illuminating jagged arrangements of anecdotes, distorting their descriptions with unsettling comparisons, and distorting time by stretching it like candy or compressing it. in scorching moments. Her work travels in moments and lives, but rarely in the intermediate units (days, weeks, years) that make up most narratives.

Scanlan’s books are difficult to place in traditional genre categories. His debut, “Aug 9-Fog,” which appeared in 2019, consists of carved snippets of a diary Scanlan found at an estate sale. She recounts a year in the life of an eighty-six-year-old woman in rural Illinois, times she spent tending a home and caring for a dying husband: “He called. Not so good. bleeding again. Trying to knit a pincushion. The following year, Scanlan published a collection, “The Dominant Animal,” which stripped the tale to its essence: forty stories in just one hundred and forty pages. These narrative fragments lay bare the threat and despair that lurk in mundane moments: a boy reaching between his cousin’s legs; a constipated boyfriend trying to eat enough salami to “force it”; a daughter bending down to pick up her mother’s stray white hair after a late installation of an air conditioner. (“He couldn’t help her because she was dead.”) Animals are everywhere, as mysteries, annoyances, accomplices, but the human characters, as the book’s title suggests, are the most animal of them all. The stories are ironic, surprising. , and wild, full of malice and hunger, where “Aug 9-Fog” is full of pragmatism, curiosity and quiet engines of domestic wonder.

Scanlan’s new book, “Kick the Latch” (New Directions), weaves together the dark threads of violence that run through “The Dominant Animal” with the unsentimental rituals of care that anchor “Aug 9-Fog.” “Kick the Latch” stands ambiguously between novel and oral history. In an author’s note, Scanlan calls it a “work of fiction” based on interviews he conducted with an Iowa-born horse trainer named Sonia. The book chronicles Sonia’s life in a series of vignettes that unfold through the heady, gritty fever dream of the world of horse racing, as Sonia travels from race to race, living in trailers and motels. It is a landscape filled with back-breaking work and habitual violence, but also with ecstatic devotion and joy. Sonia trains a one-eyed horse named Dark Side to victory; a racing band called the Bug Boys (singing jockey, drum coach) plays local bars; the priests come to bless the legs of the horses. The fleeting characters are drawn with ruthless but often caring attention: “Thorby was nice, but when he got drunk he got into a fight with a cigarette vending machine or a jukebox.”

The idea that ordinary life can be the subject of great art has long been accepted when it comes to poetry and literary fiction (in these genres, its status as a worthy subject feels self-evident), but it can still cause discomfort. in creative nonfiction. An invented life may be ordinary, but a Really Life had better be seasoned by extraordinary suffering or by a particular achievement. Scanlan, however, is almost insistently drawn to the ordinary. The shortest vignette in “Kick the Latch” is titled “Racetrackers” and is just one sentence: “You’re surrounded by some really prominent people and some of them are as ordinary as old shoes.” Sonia’s allegiance is clear: she to old shoes, jukebox wrestlers, and the Bug Boys.

In all of his books, Scanlan writes about ordinary life in extraordinary ways by radically compacting it, as if carbon were pressurized into diamonds. When Sonia describes the force absorbed by a single hoof in each stride of a horse’s gallop, “a thousand pounds of pressure held by that skinny leg,” she could also be describing Scanlan’s syntax: compact sentences that take so much pressure. The work is structured by recurring themes: the violence and pleasures of intimacy, the balm and exhaustion of hard work, our bonds with animals and with our own animal nature, those waves of desire and aggression that topple and rearrange us.

But the effect of Scanlan’s work arises as much from its form as from its content. As with a sculpture, he is likely to describe it in terms of its form as well as its materials. Reading Scanlan often feels like finding something akin to Wallace Stevens’ pitcher on a hill (“took neither bird nor bush”): forceful in its presence but difficult to penetrate, self-contained and opaque. “I try to write a sentence as firmly and completely in itself as an object sitting on a shelf,” he has said. His prose has a cool efficiency, the kind of understated revelation that makes you feel ashamed to want more, like you’re ordering a third helping of dessert. His minimalist style achieves sleight of hand. At first glance, the compression of it seems to elude the evidence of its realization, reticent in its conciseness, instead of conveying its artifice. Yet this radical brevity ultimately demands that we see it as elaborate. Efficiency is elegant and distant. The crude repetitions of need and desire become graceful asides; the mess of the years becomes a single sentence.

Scanlan, 42, 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 itinerant world of racing, jockeying and grooming that Scanlan tackles in “Kick the Latch”. His writing sits at the confluence of two artistic lineages: the art of the ordinary and the art of distillation. One is a tradition of form, the other of content. She is heir to the poignant conciseness of Lydia Davis and Diane Williams (she has been published many times in Williams’s literary magazine, MIDDAY) but also from the documentary poetry of Charles Reznikoff and Muriel Rukeyser, the dramatic rural monologues in Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology,” and the grotesque character sketches of Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” Scanlan has cited Walker Evans’s statement that his “photography was not ‘documentary’ but ‘documentary style,'” and his description of this aesthetic could also describe his own: it gives off “the raw, immediate feel of the unedited everyday. “, but “You quickly realize the shape it has.”

In “Kick the Latch,” Scanlan’s anecdotes (with titles like “Pickled Boiled Eggs,” “Call Your Owners, Call Home,” and “Gallon of Blood”) do not unfold like a traditional plot, with more depth and a narrative arc. They are more like rosary beads, each of which is a small, contained unit. Born in 1962, Sonia starts working full-time on a horse farm right after graduating from high school, touring the circuit with her “racetrack family” – a novice amidst experienced “grooms, jockeys, trainers, secretaries”. racetracks, stewards, ponies, hot walkers, everyone”, all of them visiting 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, seven days a week.” Riders are experts at starving themselves for minimum weight and top speed, a process not entirely unlike Scanlan’s trade: “Riders either flip food or they don’t they eat nothing. They get so good at throwing up that they brag about it.” —I can flip the rice but leave the beans! This is Scanlan’s particular skill: flipping 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 strange. It’s like saying a familiar word so many times that it starts to sound like it’s from a foreign language.

Sonia emerges as a captivating character: kind beneath her gruff exterior, charmed by surprising things (a Thanksgiving turkey roasted in a motel bathroom, for example), dry as a bone and cold as a cucumber, constantly discreet about her own pain. Describing a horse riding accident that left her comatose, she says simply, “I was at the bottom of the pile.” When Sonia finally leaves life on the racetracks, she returns home to take care of her sick parents and ends up working as a corrections 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 center of her deep heart. “People say that the blood runs never go away,” she says. “I still dream about it most nights.”

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

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