One of the joys of writing these columns is getting to cross paths with so many interesting and talented people in Santa Monica. I could be in line at the Post Office or Starbucks and be behind someone I would come to learn was so famous or infamous or just so talented they are worthy of a column. This is one of those times.
Writer Mark Saha, a Santa Monica resident for 50 years, was raised in Texas cowboy country. He’s neither famous nor infamous, but he’s highly talented. Saha’s recently written his second book, Lost Horses, a touching collection of short stories that explore the American heartland from the 1950’s and on, and with such authenticity that I recommend you do judge a book by its cover.
While I view what I write as “slightly less crabby Andy Rooney,” what Mark writes is classic literature of the American west. (Or, as he puts it, “revisiting the American heartland.”)
In addition to his authenticity, Saha is an excellent story teller. At the risk of making him blush, in reading Lost Horses you might recognize the influences of Mark Twain, Zane Grey and the author of Lonesome Dove and Brokeback Mountain, Larry McMurtry, the reigning chronicler of contemporary Western short fiction.
In Saha’s stories the narrator’s voice, admirably, advocates nothing, takes no sides and passes no judgment upon the various flawed characters. The reader is thus left with something to ponder, and will want to pass his or her own judgment. Above all, and in a thoughtful way, Saha encourages the reader to think.
A large part of Saha’s style is his economical, unadorned writing where every word is there for a reason. For example, even his “log lines” for the various stories, listed on the back cover, artfully reflects his fresh and easy to read style.
“Lost Horses”: A country crossroads store owner refuses to remove a horse trough, considered a public nuisance and safety hazard, because he believes the horse is going to make a comeback. “Why Men Cheat in August”: A middle-aged married man, terrified of teenage girls since adolescence, is drafted to investigate the morals of a highly attractive young competitive horse rider. “Wide River”: A college student seeking summer work is persuaded to front for a kill buyer, and meets a girl who thinks he finds loving homes for horses obtained from distressed sellers.”
“Grandpa Goes to Mexico”: When his wife dies, a quixotic old man sets out for Mexico on horseback in search of the young Hispanic girl who was smitten with him in his youth. “The Getaway of Eddie Lee Jessup”: Seventeen-year-old Nathan Osterhaus joins Sheriff Holloway’s posse on the trail of a murderer, and learns about love from the daughter of a river ferry operator.”
“Whiskey Creek”: Gus Harlan lost everything to the bottle except his beloved horse Misty and is now sued by activists who deem him unfit to possess an animal companion. “The Blind Horse”: Johnny Wexler’s old gray gelding may be blind and useless but is aggravatingly intent on living out its time on this earth like anybody else.”
While horses are prominently featured in each story, Saha also focuses on human nature as he describes varied and flawed people for whom the horses are such loyal companions. Each story presents believable characters and situations and the moralistic dilemmas they find themselves in, drawing you in with precise details and natural sounding dialogue. But perhaps the greatest subject that runs through the book is the “heartland.”
“Between the great coastal cities like Los Angles and New York,” Saha said in an interview, “lies a sprawling foreign country, called ‘the heartland,’ where people often think — and vote — very differently than we do.” As a teenager, Saha picked cotton by hand, worked cattle and, for food, hunted quail and duck with his friends. These experiences have given him an enormous affection and understanding of the world he writes about in Lost Horses.
Saha moved to Santa Monica in 1969 and worked as a Hollywood writer. But he was never given the chance to write about the subject closest to his heart: the land, the horses and the people from where he grew up. If you read Lost Horses, it’s likely you’ll appreciate why he wrote it.
Lost Horses is available at Amazon and Small World Books in Venice on the boardwalk at 1407 Ocean Front Walk or phone (310) 399-2360. Mark Saha is at: email@example.com. Jack is at firstname.lastname@example.org