Author Andy Plattner is a journalist who writes about horseracing and has published two previous short story collections. His debut novel Offerings from a Rust Belt Jockey, published by Dzanc Books, follows forty-five-year-old jockey Carl Arvo from March through Labor Day as he aims for a winning season that will hopefully change his life.
It doesn’t take an extensive knowledge of horseracing to know that it’s all about hitting a streak. You win some races, you lose some races, but when you’re on a streak you ride it out for as long as you can. Arvo is fresh off a strong racing season that has him in high spirits for the upcoming spring. “I can’t explain it, though. Why it’s happening. But I feel great . . .” he says to Christine Flemming as he pitches a idea for the racing season that involves staying in her apartment. Arvo’s suggestion is based on business as much as companionship. The deal will work like this: he and Flemming will meet in the mornings to discuss the races. Arvo will fill her in on the details of the horses; how they feel to him, how they’ve been training, and she will use her gambling expertise to make bets. If all goes as planned they’ll generate a tidy off-track income. It isn’t illegal by any means. As Arvo sees it, it is a way to maximize the optimistic feeling he has that his winning streak will continue.
As horses and betting tend to go, it doesn’t work out as seamlessly as Arvo hopes, especially when Flemming becomes distracted by her ex-husband, an avid horse gambler who is suddenly back in the mix. As Arvo’s living situation deteriorates so does his riding. He searches for a way to stay on top of a losing game as he faces pressure to perform in one of the biggest races of his life.
A love triangle, gambling, and the track set a stage in Offerings From a Rust Belt Jockey that could drift into melodramatic territory, but Plattner’s quick writing and brisk plot are refreshingly subtle. The story focuses on what it means to be a winner, or a loser, and how often we are stuck in between. Plattner’s prose feels the most inspired when he is writing about horses and riding: “The sky was still cloaked in late-night purple as Carl worked the horse over a heavy track . . .” and “They passed an open-air grandstand on their way down the stretch. The rows of seats seemed to cascade down from the center of the sky.” Plattner’s experience as a journalist guides readers along in a way that is informed and fun, and as a horse lover I enjoyed the book a great deal. As successful as Plattner is with horses and the track, he is also adept at covering emotional territory, depicting Arvo’s life as a jockey with honesty and candor. You get the sense reading this book that Plattner understands what is at stake for his characters beyond the betting slip and winner’s circle.
Offerings from a Rust Belt Jockey is a plot-driven book that has more in mind than a simple outcome. Life isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t easy for Carl Arvo. A life in the saddle has taught him a great deal and Plattner guides readers to this conclusion via a thrilling season on the track.
Publisher: Dzanc Books
Pub date: September, 2014
Reviewed by Kim Winternheimer