SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Shannon Pufahl began a novel the year that her grandmother died. Her family lived in rural Kansas, but Shannon's grandmother who was a brilliant poker player took her on sojourns to Las Vegas. And in a way, her debut novel is a celebration of her grandmother embodied in a couple of its characters in a story set in the 1950s among dusty-shoed gamblers, boys back from war and the girls they marry, fleet horses, slick card sharks, unfinished highways and the beckoning West. "On Swift Horses" is the novel by Shannon Pufahl, who joins us now from the studios of KAZU in Pacific Grove, Calif.
Thanks so much for being with us.
SHANNON PUFAHL: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: The book opens with a beautiful scene at the Heyday Lounge in San Diego among a group of guys who play the ponies and then that's when we meet Muriel the waitress who's overhearing them.
PUFAHL: Yeah, she and her husband, they've recently married and she gets a job, you know, empty and ashtrays and filling drink orders and begins to eavesdrop on these retired bookies and trainers and picks up tips from them, which she then uses to gamble secretly at the Del Mar racetrack.
SIMON: Where do we see your grandmother in Muriel?
PUFAHL: My grandmother was in many ways a woman ahead of her time. She's of Muriel's generation. And, you know, she took me to Las Vegas very often when I was a kid and taught me how to play poker and slots even though I was under age. So she also taught me how to stand there and look serious and adult so that I wasn't caught. And she drove all over the West, really, from one gambling mecca to another often alone. And I think that for her finding ways in that era, in the '50s and '60s to be independent, you know, when models for singular identities for women were harder to find than they are now. And so in many ways, you know, she's sort of the animating spirit of Muriel who takes a lot of risks and goes out on her own.
SIMON: She marries a guy named Lee. But that's not really the guy that intrigues her, is he?
PUFAHL: No, no. It's really Lee's brother Julius. And, you know, when they meet each other, they really have this kind of spark between them that Muriel really doesn't know how to describe.
SIMON: Well, your powers with language are exquisite if I may say. So tell us what you think there is in Julius that speaks to her.
PUFAHL: Part of what she sees in Julius really has to do with seeing something in someone that she's really never seen before. You know, there was very little public discourse in the '50s and early '60s about LGBT or queer life. And I think part of what she recognizes him, in him is that he's a different kind of man. And we learn, you know, later on that he is, in fact, gay, that he has male lovers. And I think that this is part of what she sees. She sees his difference. And she doesn't know how to explain it. And she doesn't know what it means to her. But she knows that it excites her.
SIMON: I want to give some attention to just the - if I may, the sheer gorgeousness of your prose. I want you to get a - read a section, if you could, that's so lyrical about horses and love and gambling. And that's a portrait of Las Vegas in the '50s. It was literally growing under the mushroom cloud of atomic bomb tests in the desert and people from all over the world were showing up - if you could read that section.
PUFAHL: Sure. (Reading) Outside on Fremont it could be 10 o'clock or midnight or just before dawn. The sidewalks are full of Angelenos and old gangsters and showgirls in feathers from rump to neck. Julius walks awhile through this modern noise in the dry landscape and no one wonders about him or even looks his way. Even carrying his boots and in his dusty jeans like a popper against the lighted street, he is just another fortune seeker in the West. He goes back to Binions (ph) and sits at the bar and posts his boots upright on an empty stool and orders a drink. Behind him, the slot wheels clunk and the coins fall into the metal sleds. The craps tables beyond are full of suits and other legitimate men. And the bar is open all night. And drinking, he has the sense of a deep rightness.
SIMON: You seem to know a lot about gambling.
PUFAHL: I do. As I said, you know, my grandmother took me to casinos. And I think before I was 21, I think I'd been to Las Vegas probably 25 times.
SIMON: What is it that made your grandmother a brilliant poker player?
PUFAHL: I mean, I think she had inside of her an essential meanness. And I (laughter) - I mean, I adored her.
SIMON: That isn't the loving answer I was quite expecting. But go ahead, Shannon.
PUFAHL: Well, I adored her. And I adored that part of her. I think it was a meanness that meant she didn't suffer fools and also a meanness that meant she saw the world very clearly. And I think all of those are essential traits of a good gambler.
SIMON: You teach at Stanford now, right?
PUFAHL: I do.
SIMON: Forgive me, is there a Stanford literary faculty poker night or anything like that?
PUFAHL: (Laughter) You know, I've heard that there used to be one. But if it still exists, I've not been invited to it.
SIMON: Well, they know better than to invite you. You'd fleece them.
SIMON: Yeah (laughter).
PUFAHL: That's right (laughter).
SIMON: I'm sure of that. The story ultimately makes makes you reflect that about all kinds of love and realized, you know, that, too, is its own kind of lottery, isn't it?
PUFAHL: Yeah, and that's really how I thought of the book. You know, the parts of it that are about the pursuit of love really are meant to be sort of analogues to risk. And the idea that daring is absolutely essential not just for being loved but for loving others. And I think that the gambles that the characters have to take in their relationships are certainly informed by the period and the repressions and the punishments that they faced. But also, you know, there matters deeply of character that I think will relate to many readers.
SIMON: Shannon Pufahl - her novel "On Swift Horses." Thanks so much for being with us.
PUFAHL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.