Back in the late seventies, Bob Marley wrote a song that recalled the black U.S. cavalry regiments, known as “Buffalo Soldiers” which fought in the Indian Wars after 1866. Marley likened their fight to a struggle for survival, and recasts it as a symbol of black resistance: “If you know your history then you would know where you coming from. Then you wouldn’t have to ask me Who the heck do I think I am?”
Allmon Shaughnessy, one of the principal characters of American author CE Morgan’s ‘The Sport of Kings’ echoes this when he asks another, Rueben Bedford Walker III, “who the fuck do you think you are?”
‘The Sport of Kings’ is not a history book – nor is it an historical novel. But it is most certainly about history. And about identity. As Morgan puts it: “You would never escape the category of your birth”. It is also about memory and myth: “Repeated long enough, stories become memory and memory becomes fact”.
This is a long and deep story about a old Kentucky horse-breeding family, the “kings” of the title. It is both a meditation on race and a bitter inversion of the American dream. These converge in a narrative that could be said to parallel and parody Greek myth as Morgan charts her characters’ almost predestined rise and fall. Stephanie Cross of The Guardian (22nd May 2016) summarizes it all succinctly: “Horses…are only half the story: the selfish gene and the legacy of slavery; creation myth, oedipal struggle and torrid melodrama – all are grist to the voracious narrative surge”.
In ‘The Sport of Kings’, slavery is not a historical event but rather an intrinsic, dominating, and ultimately destructive part of everyone’s day-to-day reality. America’s original sin permeates the book. From the floggings, casual violence and the miscegenation of the plantations, through the runaways and those who hunted them, the reconstruction years, the Jim Crow Laws and the KKK, and finally to the freedom riders, the civil rights movement and the Reverend Martin Luther King. It pulls no punches with what Reuben calls “the fruit-swinging south”, Morgan’s unacknowledged but apt reference to Billy Holiday’s iconic song. And so, to the present and the social impacts of racial discrimination, crime, and urban decay. The book captures the spirit of modern America: violent, divided and profoundly pessimistic.
Its backdrop is the South – the South in memory and in myth. Kentucky, Morgan implies, has a fabricated lineage – it not quite the real Dixie. It was one of the slave states that chose neutrality rather than secession, and by default, became a battlefield when the Confederacy invaded. And yet, postwar, it saw itself as more Southern than the South, and aped Southern manners and pretensions. But it was, nevertheless, a slave state, with the Ohio River dividing it from free Ohio.
The river runs through this story, as a frontier and as a metaphor. The Jordan River of the freedom songs that runaways had to cross. “One more river, one more river, the Jordan…”, “deep and wide, milk and honey on the other side”. Scipio, Allmon’s slave forbearer swam it, and it swamped his soul and ultimately sucked him under. Allmon carries America’s original sin in his soul, and he too is swamped and sucked down.
So too, in altogether different ways are the obsessive, racist, despotic Henry Forge, the racehorse-breeding scion of Kentucky planters, and his aloof, precocious, intense and intellectual daughter Henrietta. Jaimy Gordon of the New York Times describes her as “possibly the most intellectually resplendent heroine I’ve met in a novel…Her Faustian aspect is her insatiable, almost crazed appetite to understand everything”.
I am in total agreement. Her character is the embodiment of what really shines out in this sprawling, savage, serpentine Southern Gothic saga – the quality of Morgan’s writing. Take this passage describing Henrietta’s inquisitiveness: “What roused her to an almost pained interest, what caused her to copy down long passages into her notebooks and stay awake into the night, her mind running like a stallion on a track, was the mystery of the earth’s composition and all of its inhabitants…She slowly discerned that Kentucky was a strange and abundant place, half-mad with a restless and protean geology, secreted away under a cloak of limestone and swaying seas of timothy and bluegrass. She came to believe that the earth longed to be known. So she pressed one ear to the lip of its mouth, listening to tales that babbled up from its karsty throat.” Henrietta Forge is one of those characters you miss whenever she leaves the stage, and anxiously await her return with her prose, her presence, and her passions.
But Morgan has given us another unforgettable lead in the aforementioned Rueben Bedford Walker III: “imp, raconteur, pissant, tricky truculent slick, provenance unknown and character indeterminate”. He is our eternal Mephistopheles, our satyr, tempter, prince of lies, ebon imp, Iago and Caliban all in one, flattering and pouring poison with his faux-Shakespearean brogue. He didn’t start the fire, but he most surely fans the flames. “He speeds upon a filly as dark lampblack made by some master behind hell’s white fences, time out of mind the measure of all things”. To quote Kathryn Schultz of the New Yorker, “Lord of the wire and emperor of the shedrow, he is black and gay and talks like a man who takes three elocution classes a day, one each from Christopher Marlowe, Uncle Tom, and Ahab”.
Reuben is the champion jockey appointed to ride the Forge’s magnificent and high-strung filly Hellsmouth to everyone’s perception of fame and fortune. Ah, yes. Did I mention that ‘The Sport of Kings’ really IS about horses? Specifically the breeding of champion thoroughbreds for the Kentucky Derby and other celebrated meets. And you learn quite a bit about it too, from the colours of horses to those of the jockeys’ silks.
‘The Sport of Kings’ is very much like Moby-Dick in this respect (with h its chapters and chapters on whales and whaling), and resembles it in so many ways. It is about obsession, it is in about mania, violence and cruelty. But it resembles Melville’s masterpiece also in the power of Morgan’s writing. Her sermons and orations would not be out of place in the nautical pulpit of the sailors chapel of New Bedford or the poop deck of the bad ship Pequod. Indeed, Allmon’s grandfather, the Reverend declaims just like the New Bedford pastor.
And like Reverend Casey in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, that other hymn to an American underclass. The American canon is never too far away. If Tom Joad or Huckleberry Finn turned up, we would not be surprised. Or Walt with his Barbarian yawp. This is Al Swearagen’s Deadwood bar where Herman Melville meets John Steinbeck, and are joined for drinks by Mark Twain, and together, they channel Walt Whitman and Robert Frost – with the ghost of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlow present at the feast, with even the blind bard himself getting a cameo: “Malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man” declaims Reuben.
Yet, Morgan retains her own voice throughout. Particularly when it comes to describing landscapes, changing seasons, and the transition from day to night. Take this passage: “Far across the road, cattle moaned with longing for a night coming in fits and starts. The air was restless and the crickets thrummed. The hot, humid breath of August was lifting now from the ground, where it had boiled all day, rising to meet the cooler streams of air that hovered over it. Airs kissed and stratified, whitening and thinning as the sun slipped its moorings and sank to the bank of the earth”. Morgan repeats this passage much later on as the story grinds to its conclusion and events take a momentum of their own. Error or artifice? I believe it is the latter. Henry Forge, the man, recalls Henry Forge, the boy, and then renounces him. All is the same – the house, the farm, the breeze, the sunset – and yet all is changed utterly. Landscape and memory collide and collapse upon themselves in dark despond.
As if heading off potential criticism of her verbosity, Morgan writes: “There aren’t too many words; there aren’t enough words… we’re infants before the Ohio coursing its ancient way, the icy display of aurora borealis and the redundancies of the night sky.”
She displays an unerring instinct for metaphor and music. A horse’s neck shudders under its rider’s hands “like a dreaming dog”. “Her compassion was confederate money”. “Time is a horse you never have to whip”. She almost channells Bob Dylan. And then you can almost hear Dylan Thomas whisper as “the room pitched into a Quaker quiet”. As for the race-horses, “they exploded out of the gate like doves from a cote”. And “now the school of horses swung round the turn as if caught in a sweep net”.
The mighty Ohio and the literal and figurative yoke of bondage could also be regarded as characters in this book, as is the Deity, who casts a brooding and admonitory shadow over events. He is there in Morgan’s scholarly pedigree as a student in a Divinity college, in her metaphysics and metaphors, and he is there in her characters. Allmon’s grandfather, a pastor in a decaying inner-city suburb preaches hellfire to the “abandoned and forsake” (to quote Dylan): “What part of the cross don’t you understand?” His is a god of sin, of suffering, of guilt and redemption. “Son”, he tells his wayward nephew, “Jesus loves you but the world don’t”. It is a bleak argument for salvation.
Morgan plunders and plagiarizes the scriptures for her prose: “For Henry so loved the horse that he gave his only begotten daughter, so whatsoever believers in perfection shall have everlasting life, which is fame amongst men”. And she contemplates (or questions? We are not to know) her own faith: “The old poets knew all along: the wilderness has an awful tongue, which teaches doubt”.
And, with faith as much as history, she is not afraid to challenge creation myths: “Our stories about life and death are meaningless if they aren’t shared. Community is what religious faith is all about. Believers are persistent. They refuse to forget. Without believers, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ would have been forgotten, a lost relic of history, just the story of a wandering radical with a vision for a new kingdom. It was only the witness of a community through storytelling that transformed Jesus’ tragic death into God’s ultimate sacrifice. In their rebelling, he was no longer a political dissident put to death by the state, but a hero”.
And yet, her’s is a faith that nevertheless questions the injustice of the patriarchy, as in Allmon’s mother’s pain-racked prayer, so full of rage and impotence: “Why did you curse me with this female body? I’m begging that you free me of it, make me anything but a women in heaven. Make me an avenging angel, so I can look down on the world with inhuman strength and no feelings st all. Make me an animal so I won’t know anything. Make me a man, so I won’t give a damn about anyone”.
Faith and fable, violence and vengeance, landscape and memory, The Sport of Kings is a harrowing journey through America’s dark soul. It is not an easy ride. As Duncan White wrote in the Telegraph (8th May 2016), it “does not canter along; it bucks and heaves. As the momentum builds, the force of its culminating revelations urges you towards what you might have least expected: the desire to get back in the saddle and do it all over again”. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Homer Simpson once said: “If horse racing is the sport of kings, then surely bowling is…a very good sport, as well.” But, Homer, could anyone write such a great novel about it?
Read Katherine Schultz’s excellent review here:
Jaimy Gordon’s review for the New York Times follows.
But first, CE Morgan on the immoral mathematics behind the strange fruit of Billie Holiday’s iconic song.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Poem by Abel Meeropol, sung by Billie Holiday 1939
Over to Morgan:
“No, this was the 1950s and Kentucky had stopped hanging its black laundry, or so they say. Surely Filipino Dunbar wasn’t what his mother used to call the Christmas babies, the ones killed at Christmas, his mother born out of the foul pussy of slavery on a Jessamine County farm, where horses now run.Until she died in 1940, she lit candles during Advent for all those who had perished, and even then the count was quietly rising.
December 20: Moses Henderson, James Allen, Mr Lewis, Scott Bishop, the brothers Da Loach, Clinton Montgomery, George Baily, Cope Mills, Samuel Bland, William Stewart, and two unidentified men.
December 21: James Stone, John Warren, Henry Davis, Henry Fitts, two pregnant women, and three unidentified men.
December 22: Joseph James, Jerry Burke, George Finley, and H Bromley.
December 23: Sloan Allen, George King, seven men together in Georgia, James Martin, Frank West, Mack Brown, Mr Brown, and one unidentified man.
December 24: Kinch Freeman, Eli Hilson, James Garden, five together in Virginia, and fourteen unidentified men in Meridian on this day.
Christmas Day: William Fluid, Calvin Thomas, JH McClinton, Montgomery Godley, King Davis, and Mr and Mrs Moore and more and
Filipino Dunbar was one of the lucky ones, or so they say. Surely he walked
Out of Paris of his own free will that freezing Christmas Eve night without a word to his wife, without even his jacket and shoes.and the only things left hanging in Kentucky that Christmas were the ornaments on the trees, or so they say.”
The Sport of Kings
Jaimy Gordon, June 11, 2016
The first time I saw a horse trainer “steal” a race — by shipping a horse more talented than it looked in its past performance chart to a track far from home and cashing a bet on it — I was standing at the rail when a crowd of angry bettors turned not on the trainer but on the (this time) blameless jockeys. The jockey who had lost on the favorite was named Delgado. “I hope the sweatbox pops you like a chili bean and refries you to hell, you Cuban devil,” someone yelled. I was new to the track and was startled by the horseplayer’s choice of words. It was my introduction to the widespread delusion that jockeys, with their compact bodies and wizened and secretive faces, are in league with the Devil in this most devilish of games.
The Mephistopheles figure in “The Sport of Kings,” a novel that abounds with Faustian characters and dangerous learning, is a jockey himself. Reuben Bedford Walker III is black (a “noble Ebon,” in his own characteristically purple phraseology), “the best rider you’ll ever see on the skin of a horse,” and the possessor, like the author C. E. Morgan, of a boundless breadth of knowledge on the darker history of humans and horses in Kentucky, including the fact that African-American jockeys, though nowadays as rare as fair play, once dominated the sport.
This riverine, gorgeously textured novel is highly ambivalent about the encyclopedic knowledge that it delivers. Faust, you will recall, was the most learned doctor of his age, but learning only made him restless for more, so he made a pact with the Devil. Reuben knows all there is to know and flashes it with the hypnotic razzmatazz of a carnival barker, for nobody’s benefit but his own. Eloquence is ever the Devil’s art.
Three Kentucky lineages converge in the novel: one white, one black, one equine. The Forges are the “kings” of the title — Bluegrass aristocrats of apparently limitless wealth. In the 1950s, their plantation is in the hands of John Henry Forge, a corn grower, who finds horse breeding showy and vulgar. He forbids any venture into it by his only son, Henry, who both hates his domineering father and resembles him. No sooner is his father dead than Henry puts the Forge fortune into breeding the perfect thoroughbred in the family mold. Similarly, Henry raises his only child, Henrietta, as his female likeness, and makes her the manager of Forge Run Farm.
But Henrietta, possibly the most intellectually resplendent heroine I’ve met in a novel, outgrows Henry’s plans for her. Her Faustian aspect is her insatiable, almost crazed appetite to understand everything: “What roused her to an almost pained interest, what caused her to copy down long passages into her notebooks and stay awake into the night, her mind running like a stallion on a track, was the mystery of the earth’s composition and all of its inhabitants. . . . She slowly discerned that Kentucky was a strange and abundant place, half-mad with a restless and protean geology, secreted away under a cloak of limestone and swaying seas of timothy and bluegrass. She came to believe that the earth longed to be known. So she pressed one ear to the lip of its mouth, listening to tales that babbled up from its karsty throat.”
Henrietta is also driven in the body, an unapologetic seeker of one-night stands who knows how to reap a savage pleasure on top — always on top — of men who mean nothing to her, until she falls in love with a black groom whom she hires over her racist father’s objections, drawn by his severe beauty and the veiled mystery of his previous suffering.
Allmon Shaughnessy has learned to care for horses in a prison work program. He is the descendant of a runaway slave, Scipio, who swam the Ohio River to Cincinnati, only to commit suicide mysteriously a few years later. An antique will that Henrietta reads without comprehending alerts the reader that Scipio was born on the Forge plantation, so that Allmon and Henrietta unknowingly share family history. Allmon has a gift for horses, but it is through his own infernal deal that he lands the job of caring for the horse of Henry’s dreams, the inbred issue of a son and daughter of Secretariat: Hellsmouth, a filly, who is headed for the 2006 Kentucky Derby.
All three lineages are “poisoned.” The poison that the Forges transmit from generation to generation is the delusion of their own congenital superiority, which they shore up by misusing history and biology. “Southerners . . . know perfectly well they’re ignorant; the problem is they’re proud of it,” Henrietta tells Allmon. Being black in America may carry its own poison in the blood. We find out that Allmon’s mother, broken by poverty, developed lupus, could not afford treatment and left Allmon to fend for himself. Inevitably, the boy was swallowed up by the American correctional system. Halfway through “The Sport of Kings,” Allmon himself becomes ill. As for the horses, horse racing devotees know well that the breeding of racehorses for brilliant speed on fragile legs, great heart and the will to win at any cost is a Devil’s bargain in itself.
One curious pattern that repeats itself often in Morgan’s Southern Gothic plot is a kind of murderous tattling, in which one character tells the truth to another and mayhem results, sweeping away the guilty with the less guilty (there are no innocents). Henry’s crude and ruthless trainer, Mack Snyder, relishes informing Henry that his daughter is sleeping with the black groom, which brings about the darkest bargain in the book. (“I made a deal with the Devil!” Allmon says, once he begins to come undone.) And Reuben, “imp, raconteur, pissant, tricky truculent slick,” gives Allmon a four-page, crackling, cackling soliloquy of a history lesson that taunts and tempts Allmon to commit the greatest crime of all.
“The Sport of Kings” can be wearing. Some of Morgan’s black characters are so crushed by pain and misfortune one can hardly bear to read on. But I read on. There is life, wild joy and finally salvation in the language itself. C. E. Morgan has more nerve, linguistic vitality and commitment to cosmic thoroughness in one joint of her little finger than the next hundred contemporary novelists have in their entire bodies and vocabularies. Even so, I occasionally longed for the relatively simple delights of, say, Charles Portis or Annie Proulx. Despite the rich Kentucky dialects with which Morgan is clearly conversant, genuine dialogue is in short supply in “The Sport of Kings.” What the novel delivers instead is disquisition, exhortation, lessons, speechifying. Morgan never alludes to a rhetorical performance by one of her characters without inserting it whole into her text.
There were times when I glanced ahead in the book and flinched at the mighty river of words coming toward me, as muddy and heavy with organic sediment as the Ohio River, Morgan’s dominant metaphor. Once I recoiled at seeing around the bend a seven-page sermon on how “the son of God is a Negro” by Allmon’s grandfather. After I read it, however — “What part the cross don’t you understand?” — I shouted amen with the congregation. The fire, virtuosity and spiritual imagination with which Morgan conjures this weary, seen-it-all, demotic black prophet — like so much else in her book — are nothing short of genius.
Jaimy Gordon’s novel about horse racing, ‘Lord of Misrule’, won the National Book Award in 2010.