In Shannon Pufahl’s engrossing, melancholy debut novel, On Swift Horses, California feels both scrubbed new and thick with storm clouds ... It’s practically axiomatic that every story set in 1950s America must be a critique of its squeaky-clean surfaces. On Swift Horses is no different. But it does it so skillfully — Pufahl’s prose is consistently lyrical and deeply observant. And her keenest observations are about the secrets we keep ... Pufahl,...is plainly a fan of the fiercest noirs to come out of the postwar era ... She admires the genre’s blend of high and low culture, its sharp-elbowed sentences and neon-lit imagery, its vision of hard-luck off-the-grid lives. Just as important, Pufahl’s prose can run with those icons and at times surpass them ... Metaphors run so thickly over Pufahl’s story that the novel reads as much like a prose-poem commentary on the ’50s as a realistic novel set in it ... That sense of unreality can sometimes make Pufahl’s dialogue ungainly. Her style, so rooted in symbol and lyricism, can make her characters sometimes speak as if they were prophets on a whiskey bender...Pufahl is so committed to the spell she’s casting that her characters’ voices fall under it too ... Yet it’s a remarkable spell. Pufahl embraces noir’s mood while weaving in a love story. She evokes the fear and possibility of life in a new place, with new emotions. She writes with a grace and force that’s rare even among seasoned writers
... [an] Odyssean debut novel ... a book about the midcentury American West, gambling and queer love; but it doesn’t follow the plow of stories from any of these territories. Pufahl’s voice is strikingly solid, timeworn but not nostalgic, as she unravels a cinematic story that avoids genre clichés or sentimentality ... After the fast clip of the first section, the novel unfurls in [the] steady mode of parallel pursuits. It becomes two love stories — neither quite romantic, but rather about twin passions that are both discordant with their time ... Pufahl’s love stories are of the postwar era, but they aren’t intended to reflect it ... It’s Pufahl’s extraordinary fidelity to her characters that compels the reader through the book ... The revelation at which Muriel and the reader arrive is not new, but it is timeless.
... moody, furtive ... [Pufahl] depicts her characters in elegant chiaroscuro, always half sunken in shadows. She is especially good at a form of elliptical poker-table dialogue that says everything except what it really means. The tumbleweed desolation exacts a toll, as well, as the novel is somber and humorless, with long arid stretches in which no one feels any emotion at all.