I don’t know how Jane Smiley does it. In the past decade she’s delivered novels ranging from a King Lear modernization (A Thousand Acres) to a satire of the American university system (Moo) to a family drama set in 14th century Greenland (The Greenlanders). What next, a meticulously authentic delve into the glamorous and sordid world of thoroughbred horse racing? Precisely. Smiley’s tenth novel, Horse Heaven, is so saturated with atmosphere and character development that it reads with a delicious languor, with a subtle sense that gratification is just around the corner. Over the years, Smiley has become a master of control, of knowing just how much detail to supply, which scenes should be carried by dialogue, and how best to balance tension with lyricism. In short, her sense of timing is impeccable, which is why she is able to make a 500-plus page novel on a topic with such seemingly limited appeal nothing short of riveting.
The plotline is so intricate and snarled that it’s nearly impossible to follow in a linear fashion, but the story is only a backdrop for the vivid personalities that emerge from it. Prominent amidst the dozen or so characters that anchor the novel are multimillionaire horse owner Al Maybrick, his trophy wife Rosalind, a crooked hothead of a trainer named Buddy Crawford, eccentric “animal communicator” Elizabeth, horse-crazy preteen Audrey Schmidt, and two animal-characters that are not a smidgen less developed than their human counterparts: snooty Jack Russell Eilee, bay thoroughbred Justa Bob and a fierce red stallion named Epic Steam. Note to readers who were fans of The Black Stallion, or, less admirably, of Black Beauty, during girlhood: Justa Bob might be an ordinary-looking bay gelding, but he easily ranks among the greatest equine characters of all time, fictive or real, including Phar Lap and Ruffian. Horse Heaven is worth reading for Justa Bob alone, and this is coming from a reviewer who generally hates any art form that attempts to communicate the consciousness of animals. But Smiley pulls it off because she takes an entirely deadpan approach and never once allows the characters of Justa Bob or Eileen to veer anywhere near cuteness.
So what actually happens in Horse Heaven? A lot of rich people try to get richer, abusing animals and each other along the way. Rosalind cheats on Al, Buddy drugs his horses, Audrey kisses a jockey, Epic Steam attempts to rape a filly and is banned from the track. Most characters are fabulously wealthy and otherwise bereft. Their racing lives are steeped so far into acquisition and pursuit of victory that their relationships too become dictated by strategy and manipulation. They live on perpetual binges, spending astronomically, losing race after race, riding manic highs when they hit winning streaks. While Smiley obviously loves racing (a project as supremely researched as Horse Heaven must be fueled by some degree of passion), she also recognizes the sport as a poignant parallel to the human condition. From a distance, both are basically about winning and losing, but upon scrutiny reveal themselves to be a magnificent labyrinth of confusion and beauty. One of Smiley’s trainers muses, “Sometimes, in spite of yourself and everything you knew about appearances being deceiving, even though you were ages old and had been in the horse business all your life and had seen every deceptive appearance fall away to reveal the plain and sometimes ugly reality within ... you knew in your bones that beauty was the most fleeting thing of all.”
Structurally, the novel moves in initially unrelated narrative chunks that mostly converge in the end. The feeling of its progression is almost haphazard, but not unpleasantly so. There are so many characters that some are inevitably more compelling than others, and it’s exciting when the story returns to them—Rosalind Maybrick’s affair, for example, is as sexy and complicated as they come, and the uncertain fate of sweet Justa Bob nearly pushed me to skip chapters ahead. But I didn’t, and I wasn’t sorry. Because despite Horse Heaven’s sprawl and slow pace, it is never boring. Smiley includes what she does for a reason, and more importantly, she conveys her authority as a writer immediately. She earns trust, makes implicit promises, and does not disappoint. The novel does not take its big turns until they are entirely earned.
At its heart, Horse Heaven is not the criticism or exposé of the “sport of kings,” as any reader who’s flipped past the Kentucky Derby broadcast on television might suspect. After all, it’s an industry dripping with blue blood and serious cash. Sure, Smiley reveals a lot of slimy aspects of the business, but the book feels more like a tribute than a deconstruction. A world as insular, privileged and aesthetically indulgent as racing is as fascinating as it is repulsive. It is part microcosm, part alien. Horse Heaven is both entirely about horse racing and hugely metaphorical. Believe it or not, you do not need to care a lick about horses to enjoy this book. And that’s why it floored me: Smiley makes us care, because her talent and passions gracefully transcend her topic.