IIn her 2019 book, August 9 – The Fog, Kathryn Scanlan cuts, edits, and arranges the diaries of an elderly woman found at a small-town Illinois real estate auction. The accumulation of abridged, broken details about food, weather, people, disease — things from life — had a knockout effect. as in dominant animalHer collection of 40 very short stories, which came out the following year, was facilitated by generous shorthand and compression. The novel Kick the Latch, based on the experiences of Iowa-born horse trainer Sonya, is similarly broad in the way it creates a composite picture of life. In a series of vignettes drawn from written conversations between Scanlan and Sonya, the reader encounters dilapidated trailers, racetracks, the backs of trucks, long hours, brutality, beauty and joy. Sonya’s voice is impassive and humane, wary of absurdity and human weakness.
“Running, a horse spends a lot of its time suspended in the air—flying really—or on one foot. When the foot lands, there’s a thousand pounds of pressure that that thin leg, that little hoof the size of a portable ashtray, bears,” Sonya tells us. These horses—commodities and livelihoods—need great care. Sonya has her bandages, cotton sheet, hoof packing. She soothes her legs with ice, or puts the horse in an electric motor, a kind of equine jet spa.
The world of the racetrack is airtight, with strong camaraderie. In a narrative full of kicks and broken bones, Sonya gets into a fight with another coach, Tim Tucker. Later, however, when she suffers a riding injury that is so bad that she almost dies, it is Tim and his wife who tend to her. Sonya returns to this episode twice, marveling a bit at her “racetrack family”.
It is also a dangerous environment. He notices the butcher’s knife sitting in Sonya’s trailer window: “I kept it on hand. You never know.” One episode describes the night she woke up in her trailer with a man standing over her. “I was raped,” says Sonia, balding. Later, working at Unakuna State Penitentiary: “There’s not a lot of women working as max, so you can’t blame the female prisoners. Sexual misconduct, flashing their penises… I’ve been working at the racetrack all those years. I was used to it.” .”
Sonya talks about other people: jockeys who, to shed extra pounds, slap glycerin and cling wraps and sit in hot cars, or those who try to make their horses go faster by giving them electric shocks. There’s Thorby, who screwed up paint on horses’ legs; Bobby Mackintosh, who broke her neck when she ran as a three-year-old; Tommy Blue, who said he was only joking about taking his own life before he did. There is no exaggeration here, nothing flashy. When a young man says Sonya saved him from drowning, her response is usually unflattering: “I don’t know if I saved him or not. All I did was go into the water and bring him back with me to shore.”
Then there are the horses, like Darkseid, so named because his eye went out. Sonya saves him from the “murder truck” and he becomes the success that wins her recognition as a coach. Sold to someone else, he was still spinning his head and yelling when he saw Sonya on the track. Sonya’s memories of Rudy’s horse, her first horse, frame the book: “When things were bad, I’d go to the horse and the horse would make it better. That’s why I always say my horse raised me.”
You just talked about Sonya, right? So where is Scanlan? I think there is only one reference to it in the book. “I should get Rowdy’s pictures in the mail for you,” Sonya says. Thus, Scanlan is nowhere, yet everywhere, in modulation and pattern, in delivering a distinctive, rich and true sound. Zola said that art is a pillar of creation seen through mood. Well, we’re doubly blessed here, in having both Sonya and Scanlan’s sensibilities. Let’s finish with the awful “ordinary life” talk, as if there is such a thing. Sonya is extraordinary and many others would be seen as such, too, had Scanlan listened and understood, technically speaking, their days.