C.E. Morgan’s novel, The Sport of Kings, is about lineage — the lineage that produces a great racehorse as well as the lineage that several of its main characters delude themselves produces great people.
The mighty are humbled, but so, horrifically, are those who start with little and end up with less.
The book is set primarily in Bourbon County, although one interlude is set on the Ohio River, and there’s an emotionally shattering sequence in Cincinnati.
As a character, horseman Henry Forge dominates the book. He is the sheltered rich man who turns his father’s Bourbon County farm into a quest for the perfect Thoroughbred. His only child, the brilliant but perpetually adrift Henrietta, is his other obsession.
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But this is not a “hurrah for horse racing” book. While some of the horse industry characters are colorful almost to the point of giving Kentucky a smidge of Charles Dickens, Morgan’s hefty novel — weighing in at 545 pages, written over a nine-year period — is after bigger game.
Thematically, the book is both more complicated and more nuanced than the high-concept description: Man dreams big, man succumbs to flaws, man learns what is truly of value. The Sport of Kings is also about race and the hard lives of those who live in abject poverty, too poor to even afford basic health care, about injustice and how to live a moral life in a world in which the rich control even basic human needs: the land and its fruits, health, leisure, education and even freedom.
That is morally reprehensible, that we live in a nation that’s OK with letting people die because they don’t have money. And I will tell you that is the fire that burned under me while I was writing.
Left alone, Henry and Henrietta may have self-destructed quietly within their privileged shell. But Allmon Shaughnessy, a black groom who did time at Blackburn Correctional Complex, arrives to spark a series of events that leads the Forges’ precious lineage, both equine and human, into unexpected places.
By the time the horse of the Forges’ life, Hellsmouth, takes them to their final glory in Louisville, the dream barely matters (although Morgan has never been to a Kentucky Derby, she describes its mix of chaos and shameless personal promotion well). The finish is either operatic or horrific or mythic, depending on your point of view.
Sitting in her sunny Berea living room in an apartment in the Quaker Meeting House building, which she shares with her husband Will Guild, Morgan is thoughtful and soft-spoken, but passionate about the political climate in both Kentucky and the nation. The Sport of Kings reflects some of Morgan’s rage with a political culture in which health insurance is assumed a matter of budgeting rather than a moral imperative: “That is morally reprehensible, that we live in a nation that’s OK with letting people die because they don’t have money. And I will tell you that is the fire that burned under me while I was writing.”
Although the reviews have been glowing — in Great Britain, the Telegraph speculated that The Sport of Kings may be the the most ambitious novel of 2016, calling it “a high literary epic of America” — Morgan said she hasn’t read them for this book. (She did for her previous book, the highly praised All The Living.)
“Let me tell you this, I have not read any of the reviews,” she said. “ ... I think I basically believe that reviews can hurt you but not help you. And here’s the thing, books aren’t written by consensus, so who cares at the end of the day what anyone thinks of the work? It’s not going to change the books I write or how I write them.”
Morgan, 40, says she doesn’t care if people accuse her of overwriting. Not everything has to be lean and spare, she says.
What The Sport of Kings is not is a celebration of the horse racing establishment and the race and class divisions that stratify American life.
Henry and Henrietta and their odd relationship are just one of the book’s plots, serving as an example of plenty amongst the poverty.
One of the interludes, about slaves swimming the Ohio River to freedom, hits the reader like a swift hard punch to the gut. That’s a conclusion the reader gets to draw on their own, because Morgan is not big on questions about how to interpret this anecdote or that ramble off the narrative path.
“I am really, really staunch about not explaining too much about the interior to the book to the reader .... because it belongs to the reader,” she said. “And I feel it’s basically a act of respect to the book not to do too much interpretation or hand-holding for the reader.”
Critics have struggled to find an author with whom to compare Morgan: William Faulkner? Robert Penn Warren? Herman Melville?
Really, finding a comparison is an easy way out. Morgan is firmly herself; like Eleanor Catton, whose book The Luminaries elevated the dregs of the New Zealand gold rush to poetic heights, Morgan is inventing her own style.
The Sport of Kings is lush in its descriptions of the Bluegrass and its precise detail about how things look, smell and taste. As a child, Henry Forge pities a tutor who came from a place without hills. But Morgan said that’s the book’s point of view; she herself likes the plains: “I’m not to be found in every aspect of the book.”
The Forges’ home is also the stuff of closely observed Kentucky — the casual trappings of wealth and privilege assumed by those who enjoy it to be fully their due, the costly antique furniture stuffed with the cheap detritus of everyday living.
The book sometimes reads like an artful meditation, a methodical intellectual discourse reminiscent of Socrates. But it can also read as a tale of violent, bloody reckoning. Morgan knows what she’s offering: She is a meaning-maker writer, she said, not a storytelling writer, and that can be a hard sell in the publishing world.
It is fundamentally, unavoidably kind of a moral project inherent in the project of writing novels, the entrance into the consciousness of other human beings, not dependent upon relating to them, liking them, admiring them, but being with them, actually being with. That is the fundamental the act of love.
Characters in The Sports of Kings are vividly drawn down to the smallest player, from the Forges’ astute cook Maryleen to the poetic jockey Reuben. Morgan etches a splash of acid into her observations of Kentucky and its Derby culture: “On the first Saturday in May, the Commonwealth got drunk early and stayed that way until Monday morning.” Well, we can wish.
The reader will also find no great love for the shopping megaplex at Hamburg as seen through Henrietta’s eyes: “And it truly was unstoppable, the swollen stream of humanity’s consumption, strong enough to take the old horses’ bones — animals so perfect they had become things of myth — and displace them forever, God knows where. No, wait, right there, hidden in trees, at the edge of a Walmart parking lot.”
At one point, Morgan directly addresses the reader: “Or is all this too purple, too florid? Is more too much — the world and the words? Do you prefer your tales lean, muscular, and dry, leached of excess and honed to a single, digestible point?”
If you do, take your attentions elsewhere, because Morgan is prepared to take the book right over the top. By the time the deus ex machina erupts — you’ll know it when you read it — the book has already set the scene for a bravura end featuring the Kentucky Derby, the spirited filly Hellsmouth, the spurned Shaughnessy, an increasingly demented Henry Forge, a baby, bullets and fire.
Although her novel is daring in its style and plot, Morgan and her husband live simply in Berea with their dog, a Cardigan Corgi named Gus; their apartment is nearly next door to the meeting space in which they were married in April, and the two are considering simplifying their lives even further, considering shedding one of their two cars and limiting Internet access.
What will the next book be? Morgan is not sure. She said that the character Scipio, who took that awful swim across the river to freedom, will be back in a future book, although it may not be her next.
In the meanwhile, she has more stops on her book tour and plans to consider her study at the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Program in Santa Fe. After nearly a decade with The Sport of Kings, she’s ready for a rest.
“It’s a transcendent project to read, to become immersed in the consciousness of another human being,” Morgan said. “ .... It is fundamentally, unavoidably kind of a moral project inherent in the project of writing novels, the entrance into the consciousness of other human beings, not dependent upon relating to them, liking them, admiring them, but being with them, actually being with. That is the fundamental the act of love. Now you don’t have to like a character or support a character in any way, but being with that character in a transcendent, empathetic manner, that is the nature of love. And we’re not asked to love the good. We’re actually just asked to love.”
What: Reading and signing The Sport of Kings
When: 7-8:30 p.m. May 19
Where: Carmichael’s, 2720 Frankfort Ave., Louisville
Excerpt from The Sport of Kings:
“And, of course, she remembered all of the Derbys, though like most in the business, she was interested in the results and impatient with the festivities, which rankled like overeating store-bought cake on a full stomach, all sickly sweet layers of drunkenness, celebrity, and overexposure of every kind. She wasn’t one to mingle in Millionaires Row, watching men shake hands and clap each other on the back, standing dutifully beside her father in their hermetically sealed box. She spent some of the afternoon checking in on Seconds Flat on the backstretch, then braving the crowds at the betting arcade and the food stands, where bettors jostled cheek to jowl and the offense of hot burgoo, sweat and treacly perfume was undercut only by the persistent and oddly comforting odor of manure.”
from The Sport of Kings, by C.E. Morgan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27)