Everyone who writes stories knows that often you have a folder, or box, or file, of “stuff” that you just keep adding to and tinkering around with and then putting away. You feel the stuff goes together in some way, but you are not quite sure how, or at least you cannot find a way to put it together that makes it a satisfying whole.
Bret Anthony Johnston, whose first book was a well-received 2004 collection of short stories entitled Corpus Christi and who now directs the creative writing program at Harvard, told Benedicte Page on The Bookseller Blog that “Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses” was in a “process of accrual” for a decade. He said he would be working on his novel and would get frustrated and leave it a while and write a little vignette about a horse. When he started to have enough of the vignettes and his character became a “backbone” to them, he spread them over the floor and tried to understand the order of his character’s memory—where it would go next. “The trajectory of memory is not logical,” says Johnston, “ and a lot of time was spent trying to disabuse the story of logic.”
On the EFG Award website, Johnston said part of him is shocked that what he calls “The Weird Horse Story” was ever even published, much less a prize winner; he jokes that he is completely convinced there has been a mistake by the EFG in giving him the award and that any day he will received an email telling him they are sorry for the error.
That Johnston’s ten-year-folder of stuff is a indeed a story has been verified by the fact that a jury of five esteemed judges—Andrew Holgate, Mark Lawson, Rose Tremain, Neel Mukherjee, and Anne Enright—have chosen it out of over 1,000 entries to the 2017 EFG Short Story Award. However, the question that students of the short story might well ask is what made the collection of stuff a story. It is not enough that it is all about horses, for subject matter alone does not a story make. Nor is it enough that it is about one character who loves horses, although it is his weakening memory that holds the story together. No, there also had to be some thematic significance of the relationship between the man and the material that gives the story its “storyness.” Often writing a story is a process of making, or finding, or letting happen, that thematic link.
You don’t have to love horses to love this story, but it helps. The central character, Atlee Rouse, is, at the end of the story an eighty-year-old horseman from Texas who, although gradually losing his memory, remembers enough to convince us that the central fact of his mind and soul is that he loves horses. And we love him because he loves horses. Johnston has said that what he thinks we do as writers and readers is exercise “profound depths of empathy,” entering a story without judgment. He told the EFG Interviewer that he worked hard to empathize with Atlee at various moments of his life, the good and the difficult. The result is that the reader also empathizes with Atlee. The story would not work otherwise; it certainly would not have won the EFG Prize without the reader’s becoming engaged with what Atlee Rouse knows about horses.
In an interview Johnston did with J. Rentilly after the publication of Corpus Christi in 2004, he said he believed that we live by stories, that regardless of how tragic, there is some comfort in telling them. “This is linked to memory, of course,” said Johnston, “and one of the things that I’ve tried to explore… might well be called the mythology of memory.”
Although “Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses” is made up of various details about horses and several horse-related events of Atlee’s life with his daughter Tammy and his wife Laurel, the central event that keeps reoccurring is what Johnston describes as the “most beautiful thing he’d ever seen”: the wild horses in Arizona when in 1983 he makes a trip to deliver a horse to a couple in Phoenix and he sees a wild horse herd, whose playful antics charm him and impress him with their elegant beauty. There is something magical and transcendent about the horses for Atlee; when they run, they seem like one “tremulous and far ranging body, until they came together in a gorgeous line, a meridian dividing before and after.” When forty of them play frisky games in the river, “Atlee’s heart seemed too big for his chest.”
Indeed, one of the things that makes the story work is the almost supernatural magic of horses that all horse lovers are familiar with. The animal has always the subject of many mythologies and stories, often suggesting the union of animal and human and a kind of animal-human empathy. One of the many references stitched throughout the story is Plato’s believe that the soul was a chariot pulled by two winged horses, one tame and one wild. Others are: A horse’s heart weights ten pounds. A lost horse can follow its own tracks home. After a long separation, horses will put their nostrils together and inhale each other’s breath as a welcome home greeting.
On Atlee’s last morning at the Salt River, waiting for the wild horses that seem like a miracle or a mirage, a colt comes to the water and splashes in. Atlee wants his wife to be there with him to bear witness to the sight, “to feel what he did: that his whole life had led to this moment, had always been leading here.” When the colt goes under, Atlee dives into the water to try to save it, but knows he cannot reach it in time or be of any help. It is at this point that a stallion appears and dives down, coming up with his teeth clamped on the colt’s mane and pulls it out.
Atlee can hardly wait to call his wife and tell her about what he has witnessed. Although he says he will tell his daughter when he gets home, things get in the way and he never gets around to it. For the rest of his life, it is just an experience for him and his wife, and then with her death and the horses also, of course, it is just his and his alone. The story ends with this self-reflexive observation: “A passing moment, scattering and shapeless, a story that wasn’t a story at all, just something stuck in his head about horses, a memory without beginning or middle or end.”
What the story thata does not seem like a story at all seems to capture is that mysterious magical nature of horses in their natural “wild” state, and how, when they are “captured” and tamed by humans, they become obsessed, like the carnival horse that is always ridden in clockwise circles and for the rest of its life never turns left. The seemingly random factoids, anecdotes, and stories of horses that run throughout the story are not random at all, but rather unified to evoke this sense of magical union between human and animal.
Johnston has said he believes that short story collections don’t sell as well as novels because they are much more difficult to read. “Novels might require a longer commitment, but stories demand a deeper concentration and a more intense focus, and a lot of people would rather not exert themselves in that way. On the surface it would seem as though our sound-byte society would gravitate to shorter work, it it’s not the case. However, those that do buy and read literary short fiction are among the best and brightest readers we have. They’re willing to take risks, to invest their attentions and emotions; that’s exactly the kind of reader I want.”
Indeed, it is exactly the kind of reader that all short-story writers want. A bunch of stuff becomes a story not only when a writer senses a meaningful connection between the bits and pieces that have clung to his memory, but also when a reader takes the time to read carefully enough to value that unifying connection.