The series-of-vignettes format is a fairly popular one for memoirs (Sean H. Doyle’s This Must Be the Place, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Mike Doughty’s I Die Each Time I Hear the Sound). Kathryn Scanlan uses it for her compelling novel Kick the Latch.
It’s about Sonia, a girl who grew up in the fictional town/city of Dixon City, Iowa. She becomes obsessed with horses—the novel makes you wonder how you and most people have escaped that obsession—ends up spending many years working behind the scenes at skeevy racetracks—the novel makes you wonder whether all racetracks are skeevy at heart (and why wouldn’t they be? They’re casinos with a few more mammals).
Sonia spends much of the novel talking matter-of-fact about racetrack life: In Kentucky there were dormitories for backsiders but if you lived there you had to follow their rules—no visitors, lights out at ten. I had a lot of friends and liked to sit around and bullshit by the training track, so instead I lived in a horse stall with a concrete floor. It had a little wall heater, bars on the windows, a big heavy-duty metal door, one outlet. It would have been better if I’d had a car. I should have gotten a car.
Sonia’s life takes surprising turns near the novel’s end. And as Kick the Latch is about a young girl, then woman, spending most of her time in an especially male-dominated world, the reader experiences the suspense of When is some guy going to inflict some sort of violence on her? The first time comes relatively early on.
At this point, I’d planned on encouraging you not to read the jacket copy before reading the book, but now that I’m here, I’ll just tell you: the jacket copy emphasizes that Kick the Latch is based on interviews with “Sonia”—in other words: Think “memoir,” reader, since you probably hold non-fiction in higher regard. I didn’t love having Based on Actual Events! poking my mind as I read the novel, but I ultimately loved the novel, so never mind. –Jim Woster (New Directions, ndbooks.com)