The Sport of Kings

The Sport of Kings does not have a lick of wimpy writing in it. Instead, it’s the kind of prose that hooks two fingers in your nostrils and drags you through it:

In the fifth month Henry’s terror grows steadily in the womb of his mind. What if the Blood Horse is born of Soured Milk? What if there exists no vestige of divinity at all but only a satyr, that beast of horsetail, cloven hoof, and black pugnacious eye? It’s all her fault — seductress! She was too voluptuous, too hot-blooded and luxuriant. She lay in the undulatory grasses under green, fireworking trees, drunk on the liquor of Nature when the other pricked her lip and butterflied her and split the red carbuncle. See how the ordered marvels have been made vulgar! Now the invasive little goat floats in the tendrils of his sodden horse’s tail; he is swilling her dark wine, strangely robust and grinning, that swarthy little fiend already stroking himself erect, good for nothing and unfit for work, a mother’s trouble and Nature’s excess, the child of the a warmongering Orangutan and a woman, Simia satyrus. The bestiaries will designate him an indolent cline.

That’s just Henry Forge, a horse breeder and scion of an old, wealthy Kentucky family,  thinking about his daughter’s pregnancy. This is an extreme paragraph — all the writing is not quite so florid — but it does give a good sense of the intensity of C. E. Morgan’s prose and the way she  lashes together rich vocabulary and syntax to tell the story and layer and sculpt her themes.

I romped through this novel, initially caught up in the language. It’s about a topic and place — horse breeding/racing in Kentucky — that I know very little about. The book starts with the establishment of the Forge family in Kentucky and the many generations of Forges that gets us to Henry and his only child, Henrietta. Henry defies his ancestors by turning their noble plantation into a world-class horse breeding facility.  His daughter turns his family’s long line of privilege on its white, racist head by hiring a formerly incarcerated black groom (with his own long back story) that she gets up to all kinds of business with in the horse barn.

Splitting each chapter of storytelling are “Interlude” chapters where the writer waxes wild about her themes: race, breeding, genetics, blood lines, primogeniture, in horseflesh and human flesh. It was altogether clear that Morgan was playing with the ideas of breeding horses and breeding humans and how miscegenation and racism factored into both the business and the personal.

Looking at them all raising glasses to her munificent grandfather, her ambitious father — panegyrics for the living and the dead. The bourbon Henrietta was drinking was florid and complex, but she tasted only confusion. She had lain under Allmon just this afternoon, curing with want and wanting his need. She was in love, but maybe she was also hopelessly naive. She blinked. Did she actually think that love offered some kind of escape? There is kingdom, class, order, family, genus, species. You could step out of your heels, walk backward down the hall, recede from their collective gaze, but you could never escape the category of your birth and all the morphological categories which preceded it.

Where Morgan grabbed me with her writing style, she lost me with her storytelling. I don’t want to give too much away, but I found Henrietta’s declared love for her groom utterly ridiculous–lust, yes, love, no. Everything about her character was set up to make such a declaration highly improbable (though maybe the preceding quote suggests such awareness). Also, Allmon, the black groom and her lover, was a complex character that I didn’t think Morgan had a good hold of on many levels — his emotions, ambitions, and motivations. I almost stopped reading at the point where Allmon has an emotional breakdown in the horse barn — it really seemed cheesy to me. I wish her storytelling were on par with her wordsmithing, then this book would have been the humdinger it promised.

Despite my uneasiness with the storytelling, I did read all the way to the end. I loved her language and even enjoyed the themes, heavy-handed as they were at times. Anybody else read this? What did you think of the probability of Henrietta and Allmon’s relationship being true love? Did you think that a certain aspect (ahem…) of Henrietta and Henry’s relationship seemed to be added in as an afterthought?

A short update to say that I was just notified that this is my 100th post. Huzzah!

3/5
personal copy

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2 thoughts on “The Sport of Kings

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