Fuelled by Fiction

Thank you to the Fuelled by Fiction blog for this thoughtful review of Ghost Horse and follow-up interview:

It’s Houston, Texas, and it’s the 1970s. Buddy Turner is eleven years old and likes to make animated movies with his best friend, Alex Torres. Buddy’s parents don’t live together any more. Two years ago his father moved to Fort Polk, Louisiana to finish med school and serve the Army.  But now his dad has moved back to Houston, and he still doesn’t live with them. He is Buddy’s dad, but he’s not the same. Sometimes when Buddy looks at him, he sees his father. But other times, he see someone else.

Buddy’s mom works hard to provide for him. She provides for her mother, Grandma Liddy, too. But his dad’s mother, Grandma Turner, doesn’t like his mother. She’s always saying things about her, about how he should come and live with his Grandma instead. His dad wants Buddy to live with him and the woman. He can’t tell his mother, though.

Grandma Turner decided he should go to St. Edward’s school instead of Queen of Peace. So, he does. St. Edward’s is an all white Catholic school. Alex was Buddy’s best friend, and he did like making the movies, but now they seem childish. They’re not like real life. Now he doesn’t want his classmates to know that he’s friends with a Mexican. Buddy also doesn’t want them to know that his father doesn’t live with him.

Ghost Horse tells a story that will stay with you. A story of racism, and class tension. A story of broken families and lost innocence. McNeely takes you back in time to when you were eleven. As you read, you see everything as Buddy sees it, and understand it (or don’t understand it) as Buddy does. You see the edges of dark, adult truths through the unknowing, innocent eyes of a child. Over time, however, Buddy starts to pick things up. Not everything, but enough to know when something’s wrong.
You’re immediately drawn in to the story as you try to decipher the complexities of Buddy’s family through his naiveté. You’re alongside Buddy as he tries to make sense of his volatile family situation, but as a child, there’s only so much he can grasp; he knows both more and less than adults give him credit for. You feel his angst, his unease, through his half-formed opinions and almost-understandings.
McNeely uses the idea of film as a trope, weaving it throughout the story. Buddy sees life as a movie: there’s the “childish” and the “fake” versus the “adult” and the “real”:

“He knows that his father is lying. But it is like an alphabet with letters missing, a building that bursts into impossible shapes. He watches his father speak as if he is watching a bad lip sync. He is in a no place, a place where there is no horse; he is in the real movie, he thinks.”
Soon, however, Buddy realizes that such distinctions are arbitrary, and that even the adult world isn’t “real.” It’s his, what can only be described as “frenemy,” Simon, who introduces him to such a paradox:
“This is the real secret Simon taught him: that school is real, and a joke; that only losers don’t follow the rules, and only losers believe in them.”

As Buddy tries to stay true to both his parents, he begins to lose himself. With such contradictory role models, it’s hard to know who to become. Ghost Horse is a coming of age story in the sense that Buddy loses his innocence. However, you don’t see him fully grow up. You do, however, get a devastating picture of the effect that racism, classicism, and a broken family can have on a child.

The characters are complex and well drawn. They remain mysterious to us as we can only see them as Buddy sees them, and thus their complexities are often overlooked. They, however, remain intriguing and compelling. The plot is similar in that way. While Buddy’s view of what’s going on is simplified, it is, at the same time, also magnified. The edges of the events themselves are blurred, but to Buddy, they are everything.

Buddy’s trajectory is almost immediately uncomfortable for the reader, but you can’t look away. You need to follow Buddy through the ups and downs, through his keenly observed remarks and insights. As his loyalties are pulled and pushed between his parents, you just want to hug him and tell him everything will be okay. But, you don’t know if that’s true. You know there is no easy answer, no quick fix.

A dark, beautiful, heartbreaking story, I found myself wanting to both quote everything and turn away in unease. McNeely weaves a tale you won’t soon forget.

Recommendation: If you found yourself liking the kind of books you received as assignments in school (like me), you should definitely pick this one up. I would dub it literary fiction, so if you enjoy that genre, give this one a go. If you’re interested in lighter, more commercial fiction, I’d suggest taking another direction.


Author Q&A: Thomas McNeely

 On October 16th, Fuelled by Fiction had the pleasure of hosting a stop on the blog tour for Ghost Horse by Thomas McNeely. You can read my review of the Ghost Horse here!
Beth: Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?

Thomas McNeely: For many years, when I was a young boy, I wanted to make movies.  Like Buddy Turner, the protagonist in Ghost Horse, I did make Super 8 movies, up until I was about 12 years old.  A Jaws movie, a Star Wars movie, a murder mystery.  Then some of my friends got too cool to make movies – that’s the simple explanation.  The real story is bound up with family secrets and race and class in Houston.  Ghost Horse is a dramatized version of that time in my life.
But to answer your question, I think I did always want to write, to record events in my life, to make sense out of other people’s lives.  My maternal grandmother encouraged me to write by engaging my imagination, and giving me books, and a safe, quiet place to read and think.  She is the person who made me a writer.

 B: Your short fiction has been in several magazines and journals, and even anthologized! How did you make the transition from shorter fiction to a full-length novel? Is Ghost Horse your first novel in all senses, or have you made other attempts?

TM: Ghost Horse is my first novel, though given the time I have spent writing it, I could have written several books.  I am a very slow learner and it took me a great deal of time to learn how to write a novel, and I am still not sure I have a better idea than when I started.  It began as a short story that I found I could not fit into a short story form.  There was just too much stuff, and it kept growing, and at some point, much to my dismay and chagrin, I had to admit that I was working on a novel, not a short story.  I was upset because I realized that a novel would be a huge project – though if I had any idea what Ghost Horse would demand, I would not have persisted.

 B: How did you start writing Ghost Horse? What inspired you? Are there any autobiographical elements?

TM: It is completely autobiographical, in the sense that it conveys a feeling of a time in my own life, and there are elements of my relationships with my friends and especially with my father; but in another sense, it is completely fictional.  Most of what happens in the book did not happen in real life, and Buddy is a very different kid from who I was.  The real struggle in writing the book was letting go of what I thought I knew about the story, allowing Buddy and the story the freedom to become fiction, rather than veiled autobiography.  As long as it was the latter, it was dead.  I think that this is a struggle many apprentice fiction writers have – making the commitment to imagine a story fully, so that even elements that you think are known or familiar become rich and strange.

 B: You say it’s taken fourteen years to complete Ghost Horse.  What made you stick with it (and I’m very glad you did)?  Why tell Buddy’s story, rather than another?

TM: About three years into writing Ghost Horse, my father, who is very much the model for the father in the book, committed suicide.  At that point, I didn’t know whether I could keep writing the Ghost Horse, but it also forced me to look at my relationship with my father, and with what the book is really about.  The real inspiration for Ghost Horse was my own struggle to write.  Before I published stories, I went through years and years of silence.  That silence was tied to my relationship with my father, which is at the core of the book, and is still mysterious to me.  In writing Ghost Horse, I was trying to understand, and to do battle with, demons that silenced me as a writer.  In the book, these demons appear as Buddy’s sadistic friend, Simon; Buddy’s duplicitous and needy father; his paternal grandmother, who is a demon of silence.  The characters have a larger than life quality, which I think is true to the experience of a child, but is also reflective of that inner struggle.  It was a story that I felt I had to write.

 B: How did you decide to write exclusively from Buddy’s perspective, rather than, say, an omniscient narrator?

TM: This began rather thoughtlessly, in that I was just writing what Buddy knew.  As I revised the story, I had to imagine it from other characters’ perspectives, but the plot of the book, by then, hinged in a variety of ways on what Buddy knew and did not know.  I think that I had made a commitment to telling the story from his point of view, and then the job became to infer other characters’ perspectives.  Then that itself had to be wiped away, leaving only a kind of residue here and there.  I wanted the reader to experience Buddy’s struggles in choosing allegiances between his father and mother, between his Anglo friend and his Latino friend, between his authentic and inauthentic selves.  I didn’t know how else to do that except to write the novel from his point of view.

 B: Imagination is an important part of Buddy’s life—as it is for many children. But for Buddy it’s not just fun and games. It’s how he tries to understand the world, and his very real family situation. How did you decide to use film as the embodiment of this for Buddy?

TM: This, too, was an autobiographical and intuitive choice, which like everything else in the novel had to be re-imagined in terms of how it would work in the book.  As you observe so astutely in your review, it is used as a trope, a shorthand for conveying what I hope is a complex debate in Buddy’s mind about what to trust in his own perceptions of his family and his friend Simon’s family, in the face of very confusing signals, especially from the adults around him.  I think that this is part of growing up, of forming one’s own narrative – learning what is real in one’s own story.  Of course, as I was writing the story, film did not present itself in this way – only through revision was I able to see its rhetorical or metaphorical possibilities.

 B: Ghost Horse ends when Buddy is still a boy. What becomes of him? Do you know?

I hope that he and his mother will learn to keep his father out of their lives.  He will bring them nothing but trouble.  I hope they do this, but I’m not sure.

 B: Will you feature Buddy in any more of your writing?

TM: He is a character in a couple of other stories, “Pictures of the Shark” and “King Elvis,” but I think that he and I have parted ways, at least for the foreseeable future.  It was just too hard to write about him, to inhabit that point of view and try to get it right.  Plus, I would like to move on to other voices, other characters, and other ways of exploring my own experience.

 B: Do you have another novel in the works?

TM: I have several projects, all of which sprouted up during the writing of Ghost Horse.  I have a handful of stories drafted, and I’d love to get to them – they are not about Buddy, or children, or anything of that ilk.  They are also stories, a form I love to read and write.  I have written pieces of a memoir of the time that I was silenced – that I silenced myself as a writer, one of which was published in Ninth Letter.  In this sense, Buddy lives on, but in a very different way.  As far as novels, I have been thinking of one about the Dean Corll murder case, at the time the worst serial murder case in the U.S., which is in the background of Ghost Horse.  Too much to do!  Thank goodness!

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