Wrong side of the tracks
The Sport of Kings By CE Morgan Fourth Estate, 545pp, $32.99
In the apparent ease with which so many of the deep vernacular pools of American speech are plumbed, CE Morgan — in her second novel The Sport of Kings — is Mark Twain’s inheritor. If it is not the case that “all American literature comes from one book” ( Huckleberry Finn), as Hemingway reverently said, Twain’s novel freed later generations of authors to explore the many riches and varieties of the national language.
In Morgan’s massive yet taut masterwork, we hear the gospel-drenched sermons of a black preacher in a poor district of Cincinnati, the solemn racist rant of a white landowner across the Ohio River in Kentucky, excerpts from the Stud Book on the colours of horses, and from texts on scientific matters that deeply inform the novel — geology and genetics. Eloquent, ambitious to the point of recklessness, Morgan’s work fairly claims to be compared with one of the living authors whom she most admires, the Cormac McCarthy of Blood Meridian (1985).
The title of The Sport of Kings promises something more limited than Morgan delivers. Yet in a significant measure this is a novel about breeding (of horses, as well as humans of supposedly different races), training and racing thoroughbreds. In a fiction in which an imagined horse wins real races, Morgan (a Kentucky native and a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School) gives us some of the most convincing and exhilarating prose that there has ever been about this sport, business, obsession.
The filly at the heart of the action is Hellsmouth, bred and owned by Henry Forge, head of one of Kentucky’s oldest families, in partnership with his daughter, ‘‘this troublesome, guileful girl’’, Henrietta. Hellsmouth is a granddaughter of the 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat. In the Laurel Futurity Stakes of 2005, Hellsmouth was “airborne a split second longer than any horse Reuben [the jockey] had ever ridden or the crowd had ever seen”. Now her target is next year’s Derby. Morgan leads us along the course to the race, one beset by danger and mishap at every turn.
In the novel’s longer historical narrative, black and white are victims of their conjunction. On the Forge side, the story begins with an ancestor’s departure from a Piedmont tobacco farm in Virginia at the end of the War of Inde- pendence in 1783, westward, through the Cumberland Gap and along the Wilderness Road to Kentucky. There a plantation was founded, whose centuries of accumulated wealth Henry Forge spends — against his father’s implacable opposition — for the dare of horse breeding.
One of the grooms whom his daughter employs is Allmon Shaughnessy, son of a feckless Irish father and a hardworking but ill-fortuned black American woman. He has come from Blackburn Penitentiary, having long been tempted by the view from the Ohio shore of “the fretful, historical amplitude of Kentucky, that netherworld”. His ancestors, we hear, stretch back to the escaped slave Scipio, a commanding presence in some of the interludes that punctuate the expansive chapters of Morgan’s novel.
In its opening, when Henry Forge is whipped by his father, consoled by his deaf mute mother Lavinia and lectured on how “segregation is inherent, natural and inevitable, no matter what the dreamers would have us think”, Morgan tests herself, and her readers. Are we being prepared for a southern melodrama of racial violence in the recent past (“this was the 1950s, and Kentucky had stopped hanging its black laundry”), incest, miscegenation, conflagration? All these are delivered, if in complicated ways. We are also being called on to still ourselves to listen to a prose highly textured but not overwrought: “the short wide neck of the horse shuddered and trembled under him like a dreaming dog”; the Forge pioneers come upon “a few starve acre farms with straggling corn patches and children outfitted in woollen rags like worn poppets with yarn hair”. In one of the grace notes that Morgan also sounds, “soft and grey as old ashes, doves bob on the windowsill”.
She takes time for the stories of numerous characters. Into her depiction of horse racing, with all its desperation and optimism, she introduces the veterinarian Dr Lou, for whom “horses are such beautiful remnants”, products of evolutionary failure; the fabled trainer Mack Snyder, who takes over the preparation of Hellsmouth but who “hated the Derby — hated all the hats and cheesestick celebrities, hated the dilettantes, the brutal distance, the field thick with useless runners”.
Finally there is the jockey, Reuben Bedford Walker III, “imp, raconteur, pissant, tricky truculent slick … of provenance unknown and character indeterminate”.
Besides this array, Morgan traverses the bleak world of poverty and drug dealing for
THIS WAS THE 1950s, AND KENTUCKY HAD STOPPED HANGING ITS BLACK LAUNDRY
black youths from which Allmon effects an ambiguous escape. Re-enter, finally, the bestselling mystery writer MJ Deane (the author’s name teasing us with Morgan’s androgynous choice), a small African-American woman bent on bringing down the house of Forge for a wrong a half-century old, although for her indelible.
Morgan’s craft is to reserve such revelations to make for the greatest, unexpected impact. That Henry Forge has begun a painful effort of reparation is mainly unknown, and certainly to those hostile to him.
The Sport of Kings is a sustained and bravura performance, from its unsettling first page to the final, frightening epilogue. Magnificently bold, complex, morally challenging, its language by turns lush and limpid, this is one of the great American novels of the short 21st century.
Peter Pierce’s books include From Go to Whoa: A Compendium of the Australian Turf.
Champion Secretariat wins the 1973 Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park; and author CE Morgan