Horse Bite, Seattle’s Latest Love Letter, by Dave O’Leary
The novel Horse Bite is actually a hybrid of fictionalized memoir and love letter, but if you step back, life in Seattle in the late-aughts comes into focus in the being of its narrator, “Dave,” who hangs out in coffee shops, works as a web developer by day, plays in a band by night, keeps a blog monologue running, and grows inexorably older, staring 40 in its grizzled face.
If you see the book in person, possibly while holding a to-go cup of coffee, on the shelves at Elliott Bay Book Co., don’t make any sudden moves (also Amazon, says Dave). You want to avoid being drawn into a recursive vortex from which not even light can escape, much like a typical winter day in Seattle. Slowly–slowly–reach forward and flip through it, to see if it’s to your liking.
Essentially, the book is like that boozy night in a bar where you run into some dude and, over more than a few beers, start to unburden yourself of progressively more intimate life details, from the trove of funny dating and job/crazy client stories, to the more existential questions of why we’re here and who, if anyone, we’re here for. You sense a bond. You’ve shared some things. You probably are going to regret ordering that next pitcher of Guinness.
It’s this (first) novel’s strength and weakness that it feels ripped from the pages of a personal blog–its picaresque, episodic chapters tend to blur into each other after a while (it’s 267 pages in need of a red-ink-happy editor). But the unfussy, chatty detail of daily life remains, unwarped by the novelist’s urge to stick to the narrative arc:
I brew some coffee and go out on the deck to read more of White Badge, which is about the involvement of Korea in the Vietnam War and the disaffection that comes after military service in ’70s and ’80s Seoul. It’s good thus far, but I’m only a few chapters in…
If I thought this was purely invention, I’d have my mouth open to fly-catching width at how pitch-perfect the tone is. But since I don’t think that, the effect is of a jostling immediacy. Instead of the wide-angle lens, charting our traveler’s course, you are treated to you-are-there musings on pretty much everything under the beclouded sun, including this thoughtful bit about the day the music of creativity dies:
Something dies in people, even for the things we love to do, the things we believe in, the things that give us solace, strength, life, the things that make us dance and laugh at death. Something dies. People stop painting, writing, playing music when one day they wake up and something has changed. The page won’t retain the words, the colors drip off the canvas, the G chords fall flat to the floor. Then the hesitation steps in. The words don’t even come and the page stays blank.
There’s something good here, but it’s also slack and wordy from being typed out. This is only about one-third of the paragraph on the theme of something dying in people, and while in a blog post this writerly effusiveness would be fine, after two hundred pages you rub your eyes before plunging on. (Even less effective, rhetorically, is Chapter 30′s collection of emails between Dave and his newest crush, or any of the poems reprinted in full here. They feel like Too-Personal Exhibits A, B, and C, rather than elements of the story.)
This willingness to bare all has its payoffs. I am pretty sure I didn’t need that money shot on page 30, but there’s an affecting portrait of a largely unspoken kind of straight manhood here: unspoken because other men simply grunt or chuckle in recognition, and women are chancy when it comes to how numbingly often the male mind turns to sex. Dave, even while by his own confession lost in love, nonetheless can’t stop checking out the tits (sexism sic) on a 22-year-old. It becomes a point of honor that he not reflexively try to pick this girl up.
You can respond to this a number of ways, but for a not insignificant number of men, this is a home truth: The penis wants what it wants. Their love story, like Dave’s, is this long-term negotiation with the drive literally to fuck up relationships, the tendency to be the man that, dismissively, all men are like. It’s about time they got a book that understands them.