Friday, April 1, 2011

Bullet Work

By Steve O’Brien

Washington, A and N, 2011

338 pages Fiction

Bullet Work by Steve O’Brien follows the lives of the people who work behind the scenes (on the backside) of a race track outside of Washington DC. Dan, who is probably the alter-ego of the author, is a race horse owner and lawyer. He is the filter through which the backside is revealed to the reader. He is also the protagonist and an innocent victim of the violence that ensues from a shakedown that is occurring at the race track.

Dan’s new horse, Aly Dancer, is becoming what any horse owner usually only dreams about—a real winner. Her trainer Jake, groomer Beth, and jockey Kyle do everything they can to prepare Aly Dancer for the big race, but they are distracted by the danger that is unfolding on the backside, including the death of several horses. Dan figures out who is shaking down the owners and trainers and nearly pays for his discoveries with his life.

A peripheral character, AJ, is really the most interesting. A young adult, AJ is autistic and the underdog among the groomers. He lives for horses and has a bond with them that makes him misunderstood by the other grooms and trainers. Dan realizes that he is a “horse whisperer” and becomes his protector and friend.

Readers unfamiliar with horse racing and the way race tracks run are in for an education. Much of the first one hundred pages of the book are spent with descriptions of claiming races, purses, farriers, vets, and on and on. Little bits of plot are disclosed and characters are introduced in the midst of these instructive sequences. Frankly, I lost track of who was who when I got hung up in one of these diversions. When the plot really took off about page 150, I read breathlessly to the end. The race sequences are particularly well written, the villains are true to form, and the shady dealings are plausible.

I wish that O’Brien had developed the characters more deeply. I understand that this is not his long-suit, but I had real trouble envisioning them, particularly Dan, the main character. I had no idea who he was, other than someone who loved horses and horse racing. Frankly, I couldn’t help comparing this book with Lord of Misrule, which I read and blogged about in December. Really, I shouldn’t have compared it, because Lord of Misrule won the National Book Award. And, because I had read Jaimy Gordon’s book, I understood the backside a little bit better than if I had been a rank novice. I do have to say that Gordon breathed life into the same type of characters that O’Brien was introducing, including the horses; characters that lay flat on O’Brien’s pages.

Steve O’Brien is an attorney and fiction writer. His other book is Elijah’s Coin, a young adult novel. They seem to be self-published, which is itself an adventure. I think that this book will gain a following. Dick Francis used to be the king of horse racing novels. It will be interesting to see if Steve O’Brien can pick up the slack.

I received this book from The Cadence Group as an advance review copy.

There are not many reviews of Bullet Work available for comparison since the book is just being released. Here is the publisher’s site:

A blog review by the blogger Rex Robot (You gotta love that logo):

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