Wrong side of the tracks

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce

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

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