C. E. Morgan: The Sport of Kings
This book has received rave reviews, with the Daily Telegraph suggesting it was the most daring novel of 2016 and even suggesting it was the Great American Novel. Neither I nor, I would hope, any other discerning reader would take their lead from the Daily Telegraph in literary matters so let’s cut to the chase. Having read, so far, only four other novels published this year, I am not competent to judge whether this novel is the most daring of the year, though I did not find it particularly daring, just fairly daring. And it certainly is not The Great American Novel. Nevertheless, it is a very fine novel indeed, and covers many of the themes needed to become The Great American Novel: sex, marital/relationship failure, sport, racial politics, incest (human and equine), the South (what it is and how it compares to the North), a bit of the pioneer story and that burning desire to be the best or get the best, whatever the cost, particularly if the cost is borne by someone else.
The bulk of the novel starts sometime after World War II, though we do get a picture of how the Forges got where they are. An ancestor – and all the Forges can name all their ancestors back to him – was given a land grant for his heroics in the Revolutionary War. The land was in Virginia (which was a lot bigger then than it is now) but he still thought it was too crowded out there so he took a trusted slave and headed West. After not many adventures – no Native Americans attacked them nor did any bears – they got to Lexington and moved on to near what is now Paris, Kentucky, where they settled. The rest of the family was moved and they remained there. Their main crop was corn, grown mainly for bourbon but also for cattle feed. That is the way it had always been and that’s the way it was always going to be, according to John Henry, current patriarch.
John Henry Forge was married to Lavinia, a deaf woman who had been beautiful and came from a good family. They had one son, Henry, though two older boys had died when they were young babies. Henry, who is nine at the start of the novel, can communicate with his mother in sign language. John Henry can barely do so. John Henry is the old-fashioned Southerner. He is strict and disciplined. He believes in the God-given superiority of the white male over both the African-Americans and women of any colour. All should know their place and his place is at the top of the pile. He is training his son to be the same but Henry is not a keen student and rebels. Indeed, he does not like his father and keeps away from him. Two key incidents stand out.
Henry sees two men breaking in a horse at neighbour’s ranch. He is very impressed and wants to do the same. When he tells his father that, when he inherits the property, he will breed horses, his father is disgusted and formally forbids him from doing so, as only low-lifes (white niggers is the term he uses) breed horses. Indeed, he forbids Henry from ever mentioning it again. It comes out later after Henry’s first sexual experience (a handjob from his (female) cousin) and he tells her and she mentions it at mealtime, causing a huge family row. The other key event is Henry overhearing Maryleen telling off Filip, an African-American servant, for touching Lavinia. (They were, as we know, having sex.) Henry tells his father. Next day, Filip disappears, probably murdered, and Lavinia is sent off to her family in Florida.
But Henry will have his way. John Henry soon has a heart attack and dies and Henry takes over. He immediately converts the property to a stud farm. His marital life is no more successful than his father’s. He marries Judith who is more at home in Paris, France, than Paris, Kentucky. Eventually, she will leave with her lover and go to Germany. She leaves behind a daughter, Henrietta, who is a chip off the old block. She follows very much in her father’s footsteps with an interest in horses and in science generally (for example, she is very knowledgeable about geology, mainly self-taught.) She also believes in having sex with virtually every young male she meets.
At this point, we meet Allmon Shaughnessy and we follow his story in some detail. He is the son of Mike Shaughnessy, a white American of Irish origin, and Marie (Marie the sweet, Marie the naïve; Marie, the first in the family to escape Over-the-Rhine with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree and a dream of being a teacher). But Mike leaves and Marie contracts lupus and can barely function, even though she does have a job as a dental assistant. Allmon misses his father but likes Marie’s father, the Reverend but the Reverend soon succumbs to a heart attack. Marie loses her food stamps because she owns Mike’s car and did not declare it, leaving the pair broke. Allmon goes to work for a drug dealer, who is impressed with his athletic skills. Allmon has the potential to be a good athlete and play football, maybe even making the NFL but manages to blow his chances not once but twice. Twice he ends up in reform school. The second time he serves a short time in reform school before being transferred to adult prison where, as a part of the rehabilitation, he trains horses. On release, he is recommended to the Forges and is hired by Henrietta. It is not long before she is having an affair with him. When their mare gives birth to what looks like being a first-class filly, called Hellsmouth, Henry, who does not approve of his daughter’s relationship with an African-American, makes a financial deal with him, whereby he grooms Hellsmouth, gets a percentage of the winnings and even a couple of Hellsmouth’s foals, in return for keeping away from Henrietta. Hellsmouth does very well. Henry, Henrietta and Allmon do not.
Morgan has put a lot into this novel: passion, intensity, superb writing and a complex story about two families from either side of the tracks. The two families rise and fall in their own way, partially because of unpredicted outside forces but, to a great extent, because of their own inherent failings. Indeed, one of the themes – another key theme of The Great American Novel – is how the American Dream does not seem to be working any more. John Henry and his family attribute this to a great extent to the freedoms given to the lower classes, i.e. African-Americans and what they call trailer trash, namely poor, less educated whites. Naturally, there is very much another side to this story in this book, with the poor treatment of African-Americans being key, though there is also an undercurrent of feminism, as John Henry generally considers women’s role to be only in the bedroom, nursery and kitchen and Henrietta and other women in the book show how ridiculous this view is. There is a lot about evolution in this book – Henrietta is a keen student of it – and therefore a fair amount about the nature vs nurture issue. Can African-Americans and women do as well as white males with the right opportunities and background? I would like to hope that that argument has long been settled but clearly it has not. While I do not think that this book will become the next candidate for The Great American Novel, I do expect to see it on many end-of-the-year best-off lists and deservedly so.
First published 2016 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux