Critics often fault novels with child protagonists for the precociousness of their language. No preadolescent could think or speak in such complex terms and with such craft, we say. Very often the books in question are first novels. It’s as if the authors are playing the part of half-grown children, trying on literary ambition for size, testing their knowledge of adult situations, relationships and social problems with the easy fallback of a narrator’s ostensible innocence. The precocious-child novel is a limited literary genre, perhaps, but a rich one, especially in a country that nurtures and defends its innocence as America so stubbornly does. I can think of several beacons just in the Southern tradition: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms; the most moving sections of Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; and more recent successes like Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. In all these books, the authors imbue their child heroes with world-wise poetry, which, though inflected with the diction of youth or provincial naiveté, can still be trusted to resolve toward wisdom and insight.
I mention these titles not to compare their quality to that of Thomas H. McNeely’s debut novel, Ghost Horse—that would be unfair and unflattering—but to give a sense of what makes McNeely’s book unique and a challenge to review. His protagonist, Buddy, a white boy coming of age on the south side of Houston in the 1970s, is not precocious with language. Though McNeely fits the familiar profile of the Southern-born novelist who has moved on to more cosmopolitan surroundings (San Francisco, Boston) and written a book about the social pathologies of the land of his birth, he’s trying to execute quite a different trick than Capote and company. McNeely has designed his book as a sort of immersive experience in preadolescent mental fragility, empty of the evocative poetry we’ve come to expect from the child heroes of Southern lit. Reading it, we’re just as confused, bombarded and ill served by intuition as the typical kid having a rough go of growing up.
This depth of psychological realism comes with some trade-offs. At times, Ghost Horse seems to have been written in deliberate ignorance of the conventions of storytelling. Readers may often be as foggy as Buddy (or more so) as to what’s really going on. We’re constantly under attack by an army of details, each one seemingly chosen not for what it evokes, but for raw verisimilitude. Typically, a novelist will streamline a character’s interior monologue to help readers move through the story; not so with Buddy. When McNeely follows Buddy’s train of thought in free indirect style, we struggle to follow his referents, some of which are explained 50 pages earlier, some never at all: “his father’s real face,” “the hollow ache,” “the sheet of glass,” “when he showed him the purple cells,” etc. These phrases seem to take on different meanings for Buddy depending on his mood and situation.
For example (and this is just one of dozens of similar passages): “And in the cold and silence and smell of the coffee plant, the yard seems like only what it is—a memory, and a movie, all at once—as if no time had passed, as if he can catch the moment in the movie when his father disappeared. He wants to tell his father what he’s seen at the Quines, and that each time he looks at Alex, he thinks the word, spic, and that he is worried about the Horse. He wants to tell him about Grampa Turner’s movies, and his mother weeping alone in her room, and to ask him why she closed her door on him at Christmas. But when he starts to speak, it is as if he reaches out, and touches the sheet of glass.”
Yes, context does help make sense of some of this, but less than you might expect. Buddy is meant to be caught in the stage of childhood between imaginative openness and the need to classify and organize. He does not yet have the words to describe the terrifying problems he has just begun to sense within himself, his family and his world. Instead of employing the shared language of abstract ideas that is literature, Buddy has cobbled together a collection of private, makeshift signifiers, and he often deploys them in too much of a rush for readers to keep up.
Sometimes we follow Buddy into experiences that may even be hallucinations, imaginings or lies he’s making up to hurt people. He hasn’t yet built a coherent self from which to view the world, and so the sand is always shifting beneath a reader’s feet, sometimes in ways we’re not meant to fully understand. McNeely has described Ghost Horse as semi-autobiographical. It may be that he has written an honest dramatic recreation, a sort of amusement park ride through his own half-formed consciousness as an 11-year-old. He has not, however, gone out of his way to translate it for us. The result is a deeply subjective experiment of the sort that mid-20th-century French theorist-novelists like Alain Robbe-Grillet or Nathalie Sarraute might have approved.
What’s more likely to draw readers is Ghost Horse’s local appeal. Those with strong connections to Houston will no doubt enjoy the way McNeely evokes the city’s strange flavors. We meet Buddy as he’s about to leave his majority-Hispanic school, Queen of Peace, to attend a majority-white school. He trades his old best friend, Alex Torres, with whom he’s nurtured a dream of making fanciful animated movies, for a new group of aggressively normative white boys who love to gossip about the moral failings of each other’s upwardly mobile families. Buddy’s family has plenty of problems, too: His father and mother are living apart, and he is increasingly weighed down by the secrets he’s asked to keep for them. His troubled family life, together with his blossoming interest in homoerotic play with both Alex and his newer friends, begins to suffocate him in a cloud of secrets and lies. He struggles to keep up appearances, led on by the hope that his mother and father will reunite, move into a big house near Rice University and send him to elite St. John’s School.
Meanwhile, his dreams are populated by the ghost of a horse whose carcass he found while exploring with his father and a news story about police officers beating a Mexican man and dumping his body in Buffalo Bayou. (The latter is a reference to the real-life homicide of Vietnam veteran Joe Campos Torres in 1977 by two Houston police officers.)
McNeely made his first and biggest splash as a writer with the excellent short story “Sheep,” published in what was then Atlantic Monthly in 1999. Much time has passed, and this is his first novel. It will not be as widely read as “Sheep,” in large part because it is not nearly so engrossing or audience-friendly. It is, however, the work of a serious novelist wrestling with certain ghosts of his past. We don’t see that often enough, especially in Texas, where literary charmers have always outnumbered sincere truth-seekers. He’s a writer worth keeping track of.