Scott Adlerberg’s Jungle Horses (Broken River Books) is the first book I’ve read by him. I first noticed Adlerberg’s writing in his weekly column in Do Some Damage, all well written and engaging, seemingly a word never out of place. And more often than not, I learn something from his columns. I picked up Jungle Horses as I had Adlerberg’s newest book, Jack Waters near the top of my TBR and I wanted to get a taste of his early fiction before I read his latest work. I had no idea what to expect of Jungle Horses as I shy away from publisher’s descriptions as a rule as they will either have nothing or everything to do with the book.
Jungle Horses opens with Arthur dreaming of horses running in a lush land – horses unlike the racing horses he bred in Africa or the ponies he bets on every day in post-war London. Then Arthur begins his day like all his days thinking of horse racing while eating breakfast with his wife, Jenny, who most likely just arrived home after spending the night with her lover, their friend, and neighbor, Vaughn.
He grabbed his robe and went to the kitchen and there together they drank their tea. They read the papers, which she’d brought in, and geared up each in silence for the vagaries of the day. For Jenny this would mean dealing with customers, deflecting rudeness, suggesting a sweet for the loved one or the missus; for Arthur it would mean the accelerating pulse as he stood rooting for his horses. When he became wealthy, he’d tell Jenny she could sell the shop and live thereafter without working, and perhaps then, if she was willing, they could embark on a voyage somewhere and he would rediscover what he’d lost. That is, they could go off on a long trip if she agreed to part from Vaughn and Vaughn himself voiced no objections. He had no interest in starting a row or coming between her and Vaughn, but he did want time alone with Jenny as they’d had when living in Africa. Yes, Africa. He kept returning to it in his thoughts, and he knew that in order to persuade her to go, he would have to prove to her that she’d be travelling with a live person, someone possessed of a sexual appetite. She’d made no reference to yesterday evening and his abrupt show of desire, and from this he drew the conclusion that she’d laughed it off completely. His peculiar behavior had passed like a joke, commented on but then forgotten, and sadder even than his wife’s response was what had happened to his body, how this morning he’d come awake with no fire left in his blood. The lust had flared suddenly, coursed through his veins, and died overnight. This morning in his body he had nothing but ash.
Though Arthur tolerates his wife’s affair, he has a secret plan, a pipe dream that he can win enough money gambling to take his wife back to Africa – if only Jenny and Vaughn would allow her to travel alone with her husband. Arthur’s life is filled with prime and properness touched with a heavy dose of passive aggressiveness. Adlerberg trusts the reader that we can make it through long paragraphs, but this only works because he expertly guides us through. A pacing with short and long sentences shows us Arthur’s dreams and their possibilities, but Adlerberg ends the paragraph with Arthur’s reality, “The lust had flared suddenly, coursed through his veins, and died overnight. This morning in his body he had nothing but ash.” I like how “flared” and “ash” play off each other showing futility of his dream.
While the first part of Jungle Horses takes place in London, the second part takes place on a small unnamed Carribean island which Vaughn owns. In the London section, Arthur is beaten down by English manners and in the latter part, Adlerberg writing turns to magical realism, a world that releases Arthur from the confines of his Englishness. The transition between the stoic London and the vibrant Carribean stories stumbles a bit, but in looking back the breadcrumbs were there in the London piece foreshadowing the blossoming Arthur in the Carribean. Scott Adlerberg’s Jungle Horses is an enjoyable meld of noir and magical realism that tells a fantastical story of love and redemption.