Prince of the Track

James Ward

  • Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley
    Faber, 561 pp, £17.99, June 2000, ISBN 0 571 20540 2

In an early scene in Horse Heaven, Roberto Acevedo, a first-time jockey, waits in the changing room for his race to be called and looks at the books that have been left there over the years. ‘Louis L’Amour, Danielle Steele . . . Guy Davenport, T. Something Boyle. There was also a copy of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale.’ What inspiration could a nervy jockey – or a confident novelist – hope to get from The Winter’s Tale? The closest thing to a horse in the play is that notorious bear.

Acevedo sticks to Dick Francis, who inspires him to ‘become the first Mexican steeplechase jockey to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup’. Deirdre Donohue, a disillusioned Irish trainer, takes the complete works of Shakespeare with her on a cruise to Alaska, as she looks for ways to get out of racing: she eventually finds respite from its unremitting competitiveness by becoming an estate agent. It seems that budding jocks, no less than washed-up trainers, know the form: when they want a good read or a practical guide, they choose Dick Francis; when they need a good book they leave the horses behind. Horse Heaven sets itself a difficult task: to be at once a good read and a good book. Smiley manages this easily enough.

Her last book, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (1998), set a Dickensian heroine against the expansion of the American West – well worn territories, and mired in pastiche. Before that, Moo (1995) had revitalised the campus novel. It conspicuously did not tear away the veneer of academic decorum to reveal the bitter conflicts beneath but remained defiantly on the surface, ironically displaying those hidden depths as superficial. A Thousand Acres (1991), which won Smiley a reputation on this side of the Atlantic and a Pulitzer on the other, revived a canonical story. Narrated by one of the wicked sisters, the book retold King Lear as a domestic tragicomedy. It remains her best work.

Horse Heaven, like its immediate predecessors, treads a fine line between straightforwardly adopting and debunking the forms it appropriates. There is no plot as such, but by accommodating its timespan to the racing season, the narrative contrives to appear pacy. Big races supply climaxes and disappointments. Against this backdrop, a socially and ethically diverse range of characters fall in and out of love with money, with horses and with each other. There are comic and romantic subplots which benefit from Smiley’s way with understatement.

In the main, however, Horse Heaven rejects the spare and scrupulous economy of her earlier novels for a quality typical of blockbusters set in the racing world: excess. There is, for example, a stock villain: Buddy Crawford (‘a wicked prince of the track’, according to the terrible blurb), a deceitful trainer who dopes his horses and dupes their wealthy owners. Smiley resists complementing her formulaic characters and situations with shrink-to-fit morality, however, and when Buddy is presented with the possibility of redemption (in this case, with playful literal-mindedness, born-again Christianity) he rejects his new buddy, Christ, and goes on to win the Breeders’ Cup.

The main female character, too, is used to confront conventional expectations, if not to confound them. Rosalind and Alexander P. Maybrick are as bored of their wealth as they are of each other, and horse-racing offers an attractive escape from both. The novel begins and ends in their bed, and with the tight-fitting irony typical of Smiley, shopping (to stock her burgeoning chain of art galleries, which are more easily tax-deductible even than horses) is the catalyst that revitalises Rosalind and her marriage. There’s a further twist, in that it is the trophy wife’s encounter with a trackside stud that initiates the sequence of events which leads to the patching-up of her marriage.

Dick (or ‘Dick Dick Dick’ in the interior monologue of Rosalind’s Jack Russell terrier) Winterson, another trainer, is the hoariest of all generic standbys, the man who can handle a woman as well as he can a horse: ‘he knew just how to do that, the way a racehorse knew how to find the finish line.’ The sentiment is appropriate to Rosalind’s understanding of human beings, which is initially as basic as her understanding of what racehorses do. By the end of the novel her perceptions have widened and deepened (a little), as she moves from being bored and rich to being even richer but less bored. Smiley reduces character development to a pointedly superficial blip.

In her novels, people don’t change even after things have happened which alter their perspectives irrevocably. At the end of A Thousand Acres, the narrator seems to have escaped the claustrophobia of the family farm and the obligation to minister to the domestic needs of her own and her sister’s families. She has, in fact, swapped like for like: confinement and domestic servitude for a cramped apartment in the city and a job as a waitress. Horse Heaven forgoes the bleaker implications of this, but the equation between determinism and dramatic irony gains force from the relationship between the novel’s setting and its form. Comic novels are like horse races to the extent that we want both to have happy endings. As well as lucky betters and hapless debtors, a New Age prophet and an academic futurologist provide variations on this motif. The thoroughbreds themselves are conceived and raised solely to race: if they do it well, they are lionised; if not, euthanised (shot in the head). A thoroughbred’s value is directly contingent on what Smiley calls ‘the song of the DNA’. This underlying contiguity of form and content is suited to the stock-in-trade of the comic novel: the distribution of appropriate rewards and punishments. One sub-plot involves a young breeder struggling to raise a child and maintain a stableful of thoroughbreds inherited from her grandfather. She attempts to keep the farm going not because she has to, but because it’s in her blood, and her efforts are vindicated when one of her stallions sires a major winner. As with horses, so with humans: the futurologist becomes a consultant to a wealthy owner; Elizabeth Zada, the animal psychic, gets the billionaire’s hand in marriage and a lucrative publishing deal.

Randomness is accommodated within this pattern in the unpredictable fortunes of six thoroughbreds. The animals’ movements across states and continents supply the necessary fortuitous encounters, coincidences of people and place, collisions and separations. Smiley comes into her own when exploring aspects of the genre that would seem better avoided. Anthropomorphism, the scourge of novels about animals, is avoided even when she provides access to the minds of her horses: they think mostly about themselves and about food. Asked to divine what a particular horse makes of it all, the animal psychic, replies: ‘he says he makes manure of it all. Hay, feed, grass, which he would like there to be more of, many times a day.’ One of Moo’s more memorable viewpoints was that of a hog called Earl Butz.

Smiley has always used bathos to keep potentially grandiose themes in check. ‘Winston Churchill,’ one character explains to his son, ‘was a British politician who was short enough to be a jockey, but of course he couldn’t keep his weight down.’ Comic asides allow parallels to be drawn between the racing addict’s state of mind and the state of America. From the outside both can seem stultifyingly insular and homogeneous. ‘Where exactly is Paris, France, anyway?’ one character asks.

Politics has the same marginal and absurd status as everything else that isn’t racing. In the Yankee Spankee Laundromat, all the tumble-dryers are ‘named after famous Massachusetts politicians, right down to “Michael Dukakis”, number sixteen’. In a novel that covers the period between 1997 and 1999, tangential references to Clinton’s tangles with Lewinsky and Starr, and Microsoft’s wrangles in the courts are inevitable. The former provides fuel for tackroom philosophers, the latter furnishes revenue for corporate lawyers to buy more horses and build architectural statements. The racing circuit presents cupidities and reversals of fortune in such concentrated form that it becomes a convincing substitute for reality.

The novel on occasion reverts too readily to type, however. Deirdre Donohue, obeying the commandment that binds all Irish exiles to exploit their origins the minute they succeed in escaping them, peppers her conversation and her interior monologues with an infuriating number of ‘Mother of God’s and ‘darlin’’s. Rosalind Maybrick undergoes her spiritual rebirth in a Dublin that panders too easily to cliché. The Irish tourist board seems to have hired a regiment of dowdy women to patrol Phoenix Park, primed to dispense hankies and platitudes in the likely event of their encountering a displaced American having a midlife crisis.

Such laziness is rare, but it is symptomatic of a willingness, unusual in Smiley, to appropriate stock features unquestioningly. Like most comedies, Horse Heaven comes to an anodyne conclusion, and resorts to trite expedients to achieve it. In contrast to Smiley’s previous novels, there is nothing here to offset the ladling out of final punishments and rewards, no deviation from the established pattern. Horse Heaven remains flatly comic, epic only in its proportions and lacking the menace that has previously characterised even her most light-hearted work.