Book Review: “Kick the Latch” — Off to the Races

By Drew Hart

Kick the Latch (the title refers to what is done to open the starting gate in a horse race), through its plain and spare authenticity, is a powerful and impressive success.

Kick the Latch by Kathryn Scanlan. New Directions, 129 pp.

Not just occasionally, you’ll see someone make the assertion that something is dead. The movies, jazz, dining out … blame the Internet? Eh. For years your F.C.* has put up with this as it relates to a very favorite pastime of his — horse racing. It’s said to have been reduced to something only a bunch of burned-out older sad-sack men follow! Well, fair enough, if you visit an urban track on a weekday in wintertime — say Aqueduct in New York — and it’s true that Boston lost Suffolk Downs recently. YouTube has a clip of the demolition of once glamorous Hollywood Park, leveled in the name of a new pro football stadium. But — it ain’t necessarily so. The sport can be challenged: by animal rights activists, by suspect trainers, by the growing affiliations with shady casino businesses. But it’s still very much a part of life, all around the world. There’s always a horse race going on somewhere, not just at the likes of Ascot or Saratoga — there remain a plethora of little regional tracks running them. All over…

This is where Kathryn Scanlan comes in, with her practically novella-length Kick the Latch. It’s a fictionalized portrait of a woman’s career in Midwestern racing, based on an actual life, with stories the author transcribed from and then converted. In brief installments, many under a page in length, the book tracks its subject — one Sonia — through her decades-long involvement. Her fascination begins in childhood,  where she realizes early on that her calling is to be around horses. Not content with merely having one of her own, even though her attachment to it is such that she believes “the horse raised me,” she “lights out for the territories.” She gets work as a stable hand on a thoroughbred farm — caring for horses, breaking the mean ones in. This leads to her pitching in on the backsides of small-time racetracks (via fictional towns in Iowa and South Dakota that must be standing in for real ones).

Tough and determined, Sonia grows over time to become a trainer, traveling the Midwest. It’s a closed circuit: the people in this variety of life know little else. “You’re in your own world, and you have enough news.” They live in motels and flophouses — drink, fight, sleep together. They play practical jokes — “when a jockey breaks his maiden (with his first win) all the other jockeys come and strip him and put black shoe polish on his balls — did you know that?” (Well, no…) Sometimes they treat their own ailments with veterinary medicines. Jockeys cheat, racing with hidden electric prodding devices on them; they gorge on steak dinners, only to throw them up to maintain their weight. There’s little money in it; that means inadequate care for the animals, who are often mistreated and medically abused, often needlessly euthanized. (This remains very much the case in reality, in the lower echelons of the sport.) Sonia holds her own, tries her best to stay devoted to those she handles. Meanwhile, she steers as clear as she can from the men around her, who are sometimes derelict, sometimes violent. When necessary, she’ll fight them, and sometimes win. But not always — she’s raped at one point, beaten repeatedly at another. A short-lived relationship with a psychopathic boyfriend nearly gets her choked to death.

There’s a full experience in this short book (you wonder if a 900-page John Irving novel is more substantial?). Sonia goes from training at the minor tracks to a period where she exercises horses — one accident she has leaves her in a coma, a true near-death moment — to a spell in Florida working as a groom on a wealthy thoroughbred plantation whose animals compete in the Kentucky Derby. With this last episode, coming as she has aged into her 40s (still alive somehow!), she realizes she’s lost her appetite for horse training as a vocation. She returns to Iowa to see her parents’ passing and then to study for police work. She winds up instead at a maximum security Oklahoma prison, where she lands a relationship with another guard. Eventually they both quit and support themselves traveling to craft fairs. Yet through it all, her connection to racing and horses remains. “People say you never get racing out of your blood,” she says, and it’s clearly the case here.

Your F.C. — who has frequented racecourses all over the place(!) — is here for this one. It’s in many ways a truly striking piece of prose; the economy that Scanlan manages even while laying down immense detail — and the details can be confirmed — is powerful and impressive. She’s been praised by some top writers in this minimalist vein, such as  Lydia Davis and Amy Hempel, and deservedly so. Although a previous book, The Dominant Animal, a collection of short stories, seemed artificially strange and unconvincing at times, in comparison Kick the Latch (the title refers to what is done to open the starting gate), through its plain and spare authenticity, is a larger success. Readers who don’t care about the sport will nevertheless be moved by it as a study in courage. Place your bets on it —

Drew Hart – your *Faithful Correspondent – writes from Santa Barbara, California

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