Review 1382: The Sport of Kings

To paraphrase Sophia Brownrigg, a reviewer from The Guardian, The Sport of Kings is about horse racing like Moby Dick is about whales. It is ambitious—attempting to tell the history of Kentucky through that of two families—one white, wealthy, elitist, and bigotted, the other black, poor, and beleagered. It is sometimes magnificent in its prose and sometimes overblown. It is Southern Gothic, focussing on the ramifications of slavery and bigotry.

Henry Forge is the only son of a proud Kentucky family. As a youngster, he was brutalized by his father and lectured about his place in history. We have some sympathy with him until, in his teens, he commits an unforgivable act.

He rebels against his father by turning the family corn plantation into a horse farm, but the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree. When his wife leaves him, his daughter is nine. He takes his daughter out of school and teaches her himself, all his lessons revolving around horses and breeding and including much out-of-date or just plain incorrect information. He is as elitist as his father—and worse.

Henrietta grows up with a talent for working with horses and a keen, cold intelligence. She also likes to pick up men for sex. Then she meets Allmon Shaughnessy, the new African-American groom, fresh from a prison program for working with horses.

Up to that point, the novel seems mostly a multigenerational saga, occasionally discoursing on geology, genetics, or history in the interludes. But after that it becomes wildly overblown at times, reminding me of the characteristics of Moby Dick that I disliked.

Like one other reader on Goodreads, every time I picked up this novel I wanted it to end. It is about deeply unpleasant characters; the least at fault—Allmon—whines his way through the novel. Its long asides are often irritating. It is sometimes beautiful and very dark, but it is often annoying.

Last year I read an essay—I can’t remember who wrote it—complaining about what I call “books only men like,” usually the ones that win awards. (I read this one for my James Tait Black prize project.) This essay commented that because a certain type of book gets attention and wins awards, now some women are beginning to write like men, using All the Birds, Singing as an example. I did not agree with the writer’s example but couldn’t help thinking of this essay while I read this novel.

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8 thoughts on “Review 1382: The Sport of Kings

  1. Daedalus Lex August 12, 2019 / 4:22 pm

    Oh, man, those asides in Moby Dick. The depth was true and the rewards great, but I sometimes seemed caught in a 100-page digression on how to tie sailors’ knots?

    • whatmeread August 12, 2019 / 4:25 pm

      The first time I tried to read MB, I got stuck on those knots. The second time, I made it all the way through, but I have to admit to skipping parts and getting really tired of Ahab’s rant raves.

      • Daedalus Lex August 12, 2019 / 4:39 pm

        Hahaha. If you haven’t tried “Billy Budd,” do so. Imho, it’s like “Moby Dick” with the fat trimmed out — just as powerful in how it draws out the archetypal forces and fissures in the deep structures of the human psyche, but SHORT (compared to Moby Dick, at least 🙂 ).

      • whatmeread August 12, 2019 / 6:28 pm

        I tried to read it but perhaps too soon after I read Moby Dick.

  2. Ruthiella August 15, 2019 / 5:04 pm

    I am with you on this one! I read it because it was on the Tournament of Books 2017 shortlist and I really disliked the writing – I found it to be way too florid and overblown for my tastes.

  3. Davida Chazan August 24, 2019 / 11:25 am

    Well… that sounds disappointing! But you know, sometimes unlikable characters can still make a good book. Doesn’t sound like this is one of those, I’m afraid.

    • whatmeread August 24, 2019 / 12:50 pm

      Yes, it can, but I think there was something too distasteful about these characters.

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