Unlucky in Kentucky. A review of the The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan
B rilliance comes in many flawed forms. But as poet Dean Young writes in his brilliant little book titled The Art of Recklessness, “We are making birds, not bird cages.” A big brilliant novel demands sloppiness. Flaws are what makes a novel’s covers expand and contract because the thing begins to breathe. Moby Dick for example often spins into disorder. At the same time there so many moments of impact and insight that we realize we don’t want entirely want all taut ropes. From the point of view of a novelist: Profundity must supersede perfection. Risk must preempt rightness. Now of course Henry James said we should strive for perfection, we should go for the prize. Well sure, all intents and purposes are good. We just don’t want to delude ourselves thinking we can reach it.
Not thirty pages in I was recommending recommending TSoK to everyone for both it’s story and especially it’s literary excellence. I’ve already heard back from one person who read it. They told me the found it one of the best written books in a long long time. So let me be clear:
The Sport of Kings is one of the best written books in a decade.
To treat this like other novels with a 200 word review is an insult. When something this special comes along, it demands presence. Damn the idiots who review and feel they must give equal time to all things inked on paper. “Oh but marketing. Oh but the snubs for pubs.” Oh but nothing. I’m thinking, with a bit of rising nausea, of one magazine in particular that seems to give every new literary novel the same number of yay for effort stars. One can’t and shouldn’t put TsOK in the same category.
Here’s a full-bodied example of just why one needs to read this book:
“One little jockey in the hot tub; one little jockey on the phone.
One little jockey in the kitchen; one little jockey still at home.
One little jockey with his agent; one little jockey in the box.
One little jockey puking salad; and one little jockey — imp, raconteur, pissant, tricky truculent slick, Rueben Bedford Walker III of provenance unknown and character indeterminate, five feet three inches tall, 3 percent body fat, and 118 pounds — barreling out of the jockey room, his valet hollering at his back, in search of the animal only seen from a distance under other jocks, but what an animal!: sixteen exquisite hands at the withers, a deep barrel chest with iron shoulders, and a head of black chiseled marble cracked by a white chine blaze; black satin tail and legs that screamed RUN MOTHERFUCKER.”
And now I say brothers and sisters, lend me your ear. This is near perfect writing.
Before I continue to gush ecstatic, I feel I must expel a few lingering discords. I lost a bit of interest at times in the story itself, which is entirely hypocritical on my part. I’m the first person in a room to say that plot schmot if the writing is great. So file this and my following differences in the folder marked ‘Those who smoke soggy cigars.’
Had I written the novel, I might have focused a great deal more on Henrietta who as a character, quickly eclipsed everyone else. This happens when we’re writing, a character springs to life, and often the character is not the one whose story we thought we were writing. Consequently, we have a major dilemma, do we continue as we were, or do we develop the new full of life character and scrap much of our months or years of work? Ah, the delicious conundrums of the author. To reflect for a second, it is odd how a character can arise, can with even fewer indications than others, to become rounder and more believable than others, who offers questions and who resonates with a need to follow. Is it that the words of their world have simply found the right connections on the train of identity or is it that we’re primed, ready for that sort of character by all that preceded their arrival? I need to reread the introductions of Ishmael and Rabbit again to compare.
I might have allowed the poet more significance. I might have skipped a good deal of Allmon’s backstory. While I liked the numerous literary nods, some slightly elliptical, I might have stayed away from Biblical names. Yes, I get Samuel signifies a transition of power following the period of Judges (who are John Henry, the strict wielder of the hammer of judgement and Henry Forge, with a drop-forged iron will).
I might have skipped the strange woman showing up with respect to a secret (no spoilers here) and I might not have made many of the late novel decisions hinge on this.
I might have calmed the ongoing drizzle of aphorisms in the last 100 or so pages, but that’s only because I’m often guilty of the same crime.
Armchair second guessing is always a sort of thing considered a sickly sport, undertaken not by kings and quarterbacks but by non-writing bloviators, in other words by critics. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing reviews; someone I read recently, although I forget who exactly, said novelists should never write criticism. To fault (or praise) is always somewhat like a social scientist writing a three line conclusion as though they don’t realize that the data, the novel, is as any of us novelists know, the hardest thing we’ve ever done; at times we can barely hold onto the thread that’s keeping us from falling. Even Gordon Lish couldn’t uphold his demanding decrees for short stories. Ça suffit! C.E. Morgan and I may envision different paths for her wide-ranging work, but this is irrelevant because as I said before, she is one hella-great writer and that of and by itself is enough.
TSoK is a multigenerational, bulky and bottomless novel following the Forge line through sons and daughters, through a shift from farming corn to breeding racehorses, and it’s the story of Allmon the hired hand who works at the farm when Hellsmouth, perhaps a horse to rival Secretariat, has reached the age of running. The old joke goes, How do you make a small fortune on horse racing? Start with a large fortune. Forge has that fortune and so…. They’re off! They’re heading to the first and second turn running half willy-nilly into a future determined by rebellion as much as prejudice.
The through-line questions for every human and animal in the book seem to be: What is the impact of a bloodline? What is race? Bloodlines although found everywhere guarantee little. Everyone and everything ends up getting the unlucky side of the bargain. At times they deserve it, at times they don’t, other times, they are only the recipient of what breeding and dumb nature provides. The struggle is always to get ahead of where one was, whether this be on terms of economic status, independence, self determinacy, or nose to the line. Morgan has done extensive research, and any reader will get a brain’s worth of information; none of it feels gratuitous.
Race holds a trifecta of meanings in this book. Race is a lineage, a genealogical line stemming from the first Forge boots that tramped over fields of bluegrass. Race is a social construct, a proxy for genetics and ancestry, that is at the heart of Kentucky’s history of racial discrimination slavery and murder and which forms a dark underpinning to the novel. Race is also simply the race, a number of furlongs that the horses must run or the number of years one continues on earth.
But it’s the writing I want to revisit. Try these on for style:
“The corn spat him out. His face scraped by the gauntlet, he clutched handfuls of husk and stood hauling air with his hair startled away from his forehead.”
“Now there was a slight breeze, the curtains moved, the sun sank to a sliver, and in the last night bats swarmed the eaves, fleet and barely weighted and screeching smally.”
“Chips of cloud formed scissors. They threatened to cut every thread in the world.”
“Now the lingering armies of dew turned to mist, mustering over the great house and muffling the voices of animals. The sun cast great handfuls of heated light, looting what was left of the shadow…”
About half way through the book we meet Mack, a jockey, who has a wonderfully characteristic jargon. “I live a fast life and you don’t want me for a best friend, but I am the man you want when you need plain speaking.”
There’s a nice section that I found much like Updike that begins, “In the morning she awoke on an old mattress on the floor with the warm sun striking her full across the face. In an instant, her heart was roused to panic. Somehow she had fallen asleep and slept through the night, a mishap she’d never made before. She always, always went home to her father.”
At one point, Morgan apologizes after a particularly literary section asking, “Is all this too purple…?” Nope. There’s no such thing as purple prose in high literary work. Maybe Horace, who is credited with the idea of purple prose, was simply biased, maybe he just would have preferred Grisham to Robbe-Grillet.
For Henrietta, and for Morgan I think, Kentucky is “a land of country contentments, rolling like an ocean….The ocean reveals the most distant, dazzling islands to honest ships only after strenuous searching…” Each ship, as a person in the novel, has a hull welded from a big personal secret, and so their pursuit of life is also a running from life. Honesty, when it arrives, if it arrives, it comes at a price.
In the Satires, Horace wrote, “Who then is Free? The wise man who can govern himself.” Nobody in this book it seems can do this. They are tethered to their roots, their bloodlines, and their histories. Each character, that is all but the horse Hellsmouth, seems to learn the one important lesson: In the race you can’t outrun yourself.