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‘Ghost Horse’ tracks a troubled adolescence in Houston

Charles Ealy
“Ghost Horse,” by Thomas H. McNeely

Houston native Thomas H. McNeely explores the heartbreak and confusion of adolescence through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy who is slowly losing his family — and his friends — in his debut novel “Ghost Horse.”

It’s a shattering portrait, not only in the ways that divorce can unhinge a boy’s life, but also in the ways that wayward adults can corrupt childhood innocence.

The protagonist of “Ghost Horse” is Buddy Turner, who has just graduated from fifth grade in 1975 and is working on a Super 8 movie about a flying, heroic horse with his best friend, Alex Torres.

But the social mores of Houston play a big role in “Ghost Horse,” too. Buddy, it seems, is a boy out of sync with the times. His best friend is Hispanic, something not acceptable in certain Houston circles. His mother, Margot, works in a medical laboratory, yet another violation of the norm, where mothers usually stay at home. And his father, Jimmy, a pathologist, is absent, having left his family behind to finish medical school in Detroit, then going to Fort Polk, La., to finish his military service. And when his father returns to Houston, he tells Buddy’s mother that he wants a divorce.

Buddy’s grandparents aren’t much better. His paternal grandmother is from a wealthy, tree-lined neighborhood near Rice University and looks down upon her daughter-in-law. She wants her son to get custody of Buddy and bring him to the better side of town, where he can attend private school.

Buddy’s maternal grandmother isn’t a model citizen either. She sits around the house, chain-smoking, but at least seems to have shed some of the prejudices that were common to the era.

As the novel progresses, however, it’s clear that Buddy is being pulled in different directions by his parents. His father has a new woman in his life, and he wants to marry her and take Buddy, too. But he pleads with Buddy not to tell his mother about the new relationship.

His mother, meanwhile, grills Buddy after his weekly visits to his father’s house, wanting to know about any possible women in his father’s life and what Grandmother Turner has said.

Amid all this turmoil, Buddy begins to turn away from his closest friend, Alex, and join a troubling all-white crowd led by the cynical, snobbish Simon Quine. But as Buddy gets to know Simon, he begins to realize that the Quines aren’t at all what they seem — that they’re brutal to each other in private.

If that weren’t enough to make any 11-year-old cry, then McNeely adds another element to the mix — mainly a dawning of sexual awareness in Buddy, who finds that he’s attracted to Simon.

Buddy learns the cruelty of childhood quickly from Simon, as he secretly watches Simon and and his friend Gene play after school. “Simon is on border patrol and Gene is an illegal alien; Simon is a police officer, Gene is the Mexican man the police drowned in the bayou. And always, before Simon straddles Gene, before he raises the knife or aims the gun, come the trembling, secret words: I don’t need your lip, I’ll give you what-for, I’ll tear your (expletive) apart.”

Before long, Buddy and Simon are close friends, and they act out situations in both of their troubled homes — secrets that can easily be used against each other later. As Buddy’s father teaches him, secrets can be powerful.

It’s no wonder that Buddy begins to lash out, to show some of the hate that he sees all around him, not only at home but also at school. Yet, McNeely manages to make Buddy intensely likable — someone worthy of rooting for, someone who deserves to escape a horrid situation on a magical horse.

As you might expect, no life-saving horse is on the way, and Buddy is forced to make decisions that will change his life — way too soon — by parents who appear to be clueless as to what they’re doing to their son.

For a debut novel, “Ghost Horse” is awfully ambitious. McNeely, a former Dobie Paisano Fellow at the University of Texas, won the Gival Press Novel Award for “Ghost Horse,” and he has received a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University as well as a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at Emerson College in Boston.

He has been working on “Ghost Horse” for more than a decade, and he has said in interviews that some of the book reflects his troubled relationship with his own father, who was mentally ill and committed suicide during McNeely’s work on the novel.

It’s also likely that McNeely, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife and daughter, got some of the grit for the novel after graduating from the University of Texas, when he worked as an investigator for a nonprofit law firm that defended death row prisoners.

Whatever the case, McNeely doesn’t pull any punches in “Ghost Horse.” It’s not as bleak as his well-regarded short story, “Sheep,” which was published in Atlantic Monthly in 1999. And while the ghost horse of the new novel’s title might be imaginary, McNeely offers hope that Buddy will find a way out of his predicament.