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daughter out of school and teaches her himself, all his lessons revolving around horses and breeding and including much out-of-date or just plain incorrect information.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.

Related Posts

Mother of Pearl

Wise Blood

Horse Heaven

Day 394: The Fountain of St. James Court or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman

Cover for The Fountain of St. James CourtI received this book in a First Reads giveaway from Goodreads. I haven’t read Naslund before, so I am not sure whether she adapted her writing style for this novel, but it took me awhile to accustom myself to it. She follows the activities of two artists, one Kathryn Callaghan, a fictional older writer in the current time, and the other a once-living person, Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, a painter known especially for her portraits of Marie Antoinette.

The modern-day story begins at midnight next to a fountain of Venus in a neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky. Kathryn, or Ryn, is taking her newly finished manuscript to her friend Leslie’s door because she can’t wait to deliver it.

The novel’s structure is a book within a book. Chapters following one day in Ryn’s life are interleaved with chapters covering the whole of Vigée-Le Brun’s life, which are from Ryn’s book. Both stories are about the theme of what it means to be an artist and what you must give up of your personal life to pursue your profession. The novel is said to be a deliberate variation on Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, but it has been so long since I’ve read it that I cannot comment on that.

This novel is contemplative, especially in the modern-day narrative, but the interleaving of stories in such short chapters slows down the pace too much. It literally takes until page 34 for Ryn to walk across the street and deliver the manuscript. Even with some chapters from the 18th century interleaved, the pace is frustrating. I found myself thinking, when is this woman going to make it across the street?

I found the story of Vigée-Le Brun’s life more compelling than the modern-day story, during which we follow Ryn’s every thought. She is an excitable, emotional woman who contemplates everything she looks at and repeatedly broods over the same things. We read about the russet and yellow fall colors or the appearance of the fountain many times. Nothing much happens all day until a late-night confrontation that seems artificially created to provide some tension.

I did not feel, however, that the two women, Ryn and Vigée-Le Brun, were two different people–they seemed to be the same person in different time periods. Vigée-Le Brun is slightly less emotionally excitable than Ryn, but their observations of the world around them, their attention to color and the details of design and structure, are very similar. Vigée-Le Brun’s narrative style, in first person where Ryn’s is in third person, is a little more formal as befitting an earlier age, but conversations in this story often sound stilted, and her first conversation with Marie Antoinette is positively sycophantic.

Naslund’s writing style, although sometimes vibrant and lyrical, often seems affected, particularly in the modern-day story. The copy I read was an advanced reader’s edition and it had quite a few typos, which I assume will be corrected. I was not quite as sure of some self-consciously unusual phrases, whether they were stylistic choices rather than errors. Naslund’s writing style tends to the unusual, to be sure, but I stumbled over some of these phrases. The only one I wrote down was an instance where some characters “made quick chat.”

I wanted to like this novel more than I did. I think the theme of women and art is worth exploring, although I’m not sure how much this novel actually explored this issue, despite its obvious intentions. I am actually curious about the alleged feminist leanings of Naslund and their effect on this book. Vigée-Le Brun has to put up with her father and then husband appropriating all her money and, in her husband’s case, only giving her a bit of it back as an allowance. When they divorce, he gets almost everything. Yet, she is determined not to let it bother her. I am not sure whether that is a feminist viewpoint or not.

However, the characters in this novel certainly reflect the “gift for pleasure” noted in reviews of Ahab’s Wife (which I am currently reading). The women go on pursuing their lives and dreams without much heed to their menfolk, they have cordial relations with those around them, they delight in color and the fineness of life. Their regrets and sorrows mostly focus on their children.

One thing that surprised me about the historical story was that Vigée-Le Brun hardly seemed to notice the causes of the French revolution or the revolution itself. There is one scene where a woman confronts her on the street and another where she grieves for the fate of so many. That’s about it.

Conversely, it is hard to believe that she would be shocked to the core by seeing a model of internal organs, as artists had been studying the body for hundreds of years. I do not know how much of this novel actually reflects Vigée-Le Brun’s true thinking and feeling. The danger when portraying a historical person is that you are imagining who the person really is–you don’t know–and you have no idea if you are doing them justice or injustice.

Day 338: Raylan

Cover for RaylanMy husband and I recently got hooked on the TV show Justified, which is just as surprising to us as to anyone who knows us, because it is fairly violent. One of the things we like about it is the well written, darkly humorous script. After we watched a couple of episodes, I paid more attention to the credits and discovered that the series is based on stories by Elmore Leonard, which explains a lot. It was with interest, therefore, that I discovered this book, titled after the main character in the series, Raylan Givens.

Marijuana growing has become the cash crop for Harlan County, Kentucky. As a deputy US Marshall, Raylan Givens isn’t concerned with drug enforcement. But Dickie and Coover Crowe have decided to expand their drug business by dealing in body parts. When Raylan tries to serve a federal warrant against Angel Arenas, another marijuana dealer with ties to the Mexican Mafia, he finds him bloody in his motel room with his kidneys removed.

Raylan is on to Dickie and Coover very quickly, as they’re not the brightest of bulbs. He is more interested in catching the doctor who is removing the organs, figuring the Crowe boys aren’t smart enough to cook up this scheme themselves.

This case is solved about midway through the novel, and Raylan gets roped into providing security for Carol Conlan, a representative for a coal company that wants to blast the top off the last remaining mountain in the area. Raylan is not sympathetic, but he is more concerned about the old man who was supposedly shot to death by Boyd Crowder after firing his shotgun at Carol. The old timers who knew Otis claim that if he was shooting at Carol, she’d be dead.

The writing is darkly humorous, with the style of the local dialect skillfully recreated. My problem with this novel is it has no focus except perhaps around the character of Raylan. It reads as if it were quickly put together from several short stories rather than plotted out as a novel. I was a little disappointed.