JULY 18, 2017
IN HER FOREWORD to the Modern Library edition of William Faulkner’s Light in August, C. E. Morgan opens with an epitaph on the Great American Novel and its recent demotion from noble literary quest to self-aggrandizing masculinist invention. “The Great American Novel,” she writes, “has alternately been described as a fantasy of the philologist’s cataloging mind, a tattered remnant of hierarchical thinking from a time when the notion of greatness itself went unquestioned, or an elusive siren that’s led many a novelist to wreck on the shores of their own oversized ambition.” But what if, Morgan asks, there’s actually something to the notion? What if Moby-Dick and Invisible Man and Light in August, and all the other GAN contenders, do in fact express something at the “heart of the collective American experience, if such a thing can be said to exist?” To answer that question, Morgan offers a definition of what most, if not all, GANs have in common:
Rarely neat and carefully ordered, they are neither quickly read nor readily comprehended in their full complexity. They don’t lend themselves to facile exegesis. Instead, they often manifest as overabundant, and just as an over-rich meal can overwhelm or even sicken the stomach, so can these novels overwhelm even the most generous reader: they are intellectually ambitious but imperfect, expansive in their vision, often shocking with their unwelcome insights and the intensity of their language. These novels are storehouses of information regarding the human in a specifically American context, but not in the fulsomely empty manner of so many contemporary novels, where linguistic abundance is too often a reflection of authorial egotism while purporting to be a commentary on culture. In many great novels, the multifarious content necessitates a certain largesse of form. And these novels bear something else in common, something intangible and less easily identifiable than a shared culture: a wildness, even madness, which is displayed when a magisterial creative force finally finds a palette broad enough for its outpourings. As a result, these works can seem almost unmanageable.
I’m not sure if she intended it to, but in addition to summarizing the shared characteristics of GANs in general, this passage perfectly describes C. E. Morgan’s own most recent novel. The Sport of Kings, published last year and recently out in paperback, is neither neat nor quickly read; at over 500 pages, it is both overabundant and overwhelming — a storehouse of information about horse breeding and genetics, the history and geography of Kentucky, and the pernicious legacy of American slavery. But its stylistic abundance is neither a reflection of authorial egotism nor self-conscious cultural commentary; it is, rather, the wild centrifugal force that drives this teeming novel across the entire span of modern American history, from the Revolutionary War to the mid-2000s. If the white whale of American literature is really on the verge of extinction, then The Sport of Kings is the last of a dying breed.
The book opens auspiciously, with a young boy running fearfully through the cornfields of his father’s farm in Paris, Kentucky, in the early 1950s. “How far away from your father can you run?” the narrator asks. The boy is Henry Forge, the father John Henry Forge: a bullying, racist patriarch whose family is one of Kentucky’s oldest and wealthiest. Their lineage, we learn, extends back all the way to the Revolutionary War, when Henry Forge’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Samuel Forge, passed through the Cumberland Gap with only a slave for company, to become one of the earliest settlers in the state. This imposing family tree looms darkly over Henry Forge’s childhood. “There’s a long line behind you,” his father tells him,
You owe obedience to them and you owe obedience to me, just as I owe it to them, and I owe it to my father, in greater degree than my brother because I am the eldest […] I’m a planter’s son, and you’re a planter’s son. There is no need for improvement, Henry, only adherence to a line that has never altered, because it’s never proven unsound.
Against the wishes of his father (who in any case dies unexpectedly from a heart attack), Henry eventually turns Forge Run into a thoroughbred horse farm. His Ahab-like ambition is to breed the next Secretariat, the celebrated 1973 Triple Crown winner, and in this quest he enlists both his headstrong daughter, Henrietta, and, reluctantly, a young, mixed-race ex-con, Allmon Shaugnessy, whose upbringing in an impoverished neighborhood of Cincinnati is portrayed in one of the novel’s most affecting sections. The lives of these three central characters eventually converge around Hellsmouth, a spirited young filly bred at Forge Run and considered by all experts to be destined for glory.
None of this, however, will prepare the reader for the epic breadth, the stylistic range, and the moral gravity of The Sport of Kings. Even the most attentive and detailed review will account for only the ground floor of this impressive and maddening novel. I’m tempted to say that C. E. Morgan is the most daring American novelist writing today. There appears to be nothing her prose cannot do, nothing she cannot describe, and no one whose voice she cannot inhabit. Readers familiar with Morgan’s first novel, the contemplative, deeply lyrical All the Living (2009), will already know of her penchant for unusual words (“letheless,” “candent,” “arpeggiation”), her gift for describing the natural world, and the metaphorical heft and dash of her prose. In that novel, a dead mouse’s lifeless paws are “curled gentle and loose as a sleeper’s hand,” and chickens are seen strutting “fat and gawky on their yellow root-twist legs.”
The Sport of Kings develops on this tendency. It is a veritable thicket of language, an intricate woodland mosaic of idiom, voice, and narrative style. Morgan reveals an almost Melvillean zeal for language. Here is the 10-year-old Henry Forge, his lips puckered “in a tiny sphincter of sorrow.” And here is Lavinia, Henry’s deaf mother, sitting in a chair with “her hands a gentle, quiet knot in her lap.” Elsewhere, we are made to see “the bitter brown lacework of the trees” glimpsed in a rearview mirror; clouds gathering in the sky that are “mossed with the green cast of tornado-laden storms”; and a “deep” evening that had “draped itself across the burred fields and shrunk the day to downy mist.”
And then there are the descriptions of horses. Here, Morgan wrestles confidently with her many literary forebears, especially William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, but without ever devolving into the kind of mystification that often attends writing about these ancient, myth-laden creatures — or, indeed, the kind of macho plain-spokenness that occasionally rankles in McCarthy. (From All the Pretty Horses: “What he loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them.”) On the contrary, Morgan’s horses are carved out in sharp, material detail: We see them with their “knife-tip ears” and their “springy legs [like] dark and knotty rose stems.” Yet her details are never frozen, never static. The novel’s long and thrilling accounts of horseracing make even Tolstoy’s steeplechase scene in Anna Karenina sound plodding:
At the sloping curve, the bundled pack switched leads as one, shifting and settling out of their steady pace for a brief moment. A mount or two fell away or bore out. Reuben had been waiting lynx-eyed for the speed shift; tucked close to Hell’s withers, he staked a tenuous balance atop the brief irons and, with his silks billowing, flashed back the crop so it struck forward with a single, smart snap. Two things happened at once: Hellsmouth jetted forward with a locomotive force so sudden and propulsive that Reuben’s boots slipped the irons and he thumped onto her back with a jarring, graceless plop; and a shoe dislodged from the hoof of a bay colt ahead of them in traffic, so the aluminum ring flung threw the air like a boomerang, and just as Hell stretched low in her deepening forward lunge, it spun over her head and struck Reuben in the nose where he sat without irons on the filly’s back.
Though richly sown with external drama (murder, arson, incest, miscegenation, drug-dealing, prison) and a teeming cast of trainers, breeders, dealers, drunkards, jockeys, and journalists, The Sport of Kings retains an atmosphere of oppressive intimacy. We are trapped in the madness, grief, rage, and violence of the novel’s unlikely triumvirate, just as they are shackled to their cumbersome ancestors, pasts, and genes. For The Sport of Kings, of course, is no more about horseracing than Moby-Dick is about whale hunting. From Henry Forge’s pursuit of equine evolutionary perfection, Morgan threads a complex tapestry of the enduring legacy of slavery in America. Just as we learn of the Forge’s proud ancestry, Morgan slowly reveals the story of Allmon’s ancestor Scipio, a runaway slave who narrowly escapes across the Ohio River — that same river Allmon later crosses to pursue a new life as a horse-groomer at Forge Run Farm. In her account of Allmon’s childhood and adolescence, Morgan shows us the weight of this barbed history on individual lives — the realities of black life in the United States to which so many in this country shut their eyes.
On occasion, Morgan’s moralism threatens to deafen the novelist in her. John Henry Forge, for instance, is about as subtle as a headmaster in a Dickens novel: he has “hands like manacles,” “[rushes] like a bull,” and “[breathes] like a gladiator” — all in one paragraph. When he coolly explains the inferiority of the black race to his son, he sounds almost comically villainous: “The irony of Negro intelligence is that it makes them aware of the poverty of their own intellect. The only proper response to white influence is humility. And the only right schooling is correction. To whatever degree is necessary.” He allows that the Klan sometimes “comes in handy.”
Far more interesting are the tensions that arise between Henry and his daughter, Henrietta. Henry has inherited his father’s racism and complimented it with an obsession with evolution, especially as it pertains to horses. When Henrietta is reprimanded for using the word “nigger” at school one day, Henry bemoans “this age of political correctness” and decides to homeschool her. “The simple reality,” he indignantly intones, “is what no one dares to say: Blacks are inferior and it’s always been that way. It’s a genetic reality.”
Morgan cleverly turns evolution into the central metaphor of the novel, and uses it partly to debunk such racist essentialism. (An entire dissertation could be written about the definition, or definitions, of the word “evolution” in this novel). Henry schools his daughter in eugenics and pseudoscience and teaches her that biology is destiny. But Henrietta, it turns out, is the better student; at night she lies awake reading about the “mystery of the earth’s composition and all of its inhabitants,” binging on Darwin, Lamarck, Lyell, Dawkins, topographical maps, geological pamphlets, and expedition records. In her notebook she quarrels with her father:
— “Race” is a word, and someone made up the word. “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is also a word.
— Racial categories are inconsistent, because what they measure is inconsistent. What’s inconsistent isn’t really real in any categorical sense.
— See, traits don’t have distinct boundaries. There are gradations of every trait, including skin tone. Genes flow the way a glacier melts. Slowly.
— Racial groups aren’t homogenous at all; 85 percent of variation occurs within any ethnic group.
Henrietta comes to understand that biology alone does not explain a human life. “The gene is not the judge, only the court reporter,” she thinks to herself. “The gene is the prisoner trapped in an organism, which can reason and plan. She, Henrietta, had made many, many choices. Her body was female, but she was never a slave. Never that. She had only imagined herself so.”
Allmon’s tragic story, however, complicates Henrietta’s defiant reasoning. Abandoned by his white Irish father at a young age, he grows up with a mother scraping to get by in the Over-the-Rhine area of Cincinnati, a neighborhood once considered to be among the most dangerous in the United States. When his mother is diagnosed with lupus and unable to pay for adequate treatment, Allmon begins selling drugs for a local hoodlum, Aesop. At about the same time, he is picked up by the Academy of Physical Education, where it is thought that his speed and athleticism might one day make him a quarterback in the NFL. But then Allmon is arrested during a race riot for an arson he didn’t commit and spends two years in a rehabilitation facility. His mother, in a devastating narrative sequence, dies shortly after he is released. Wrecked by grief, Allmon is eventually arrested again for possession of drugs. He spends the next seven years in prison.
By the time he arrives at Forge Run Farm, Allmon’s past is a wasteland. “They broke me,” he tells Henrietta, “I’m fucked up. Prison fucks you up. I can’t tell you what I did … I’m broke.” He and Henrietta become lovers, but Allmon is driven by single-minded ambition. He wants what has always been denied him, what historically has always been denied black Americans: a house and a property and a past like Henry’s. Unlike the Forges, Allmon scarcely knows his own father: “His name is Michael Patrick Shaughnessy. His father’s name is Patrick something Shaughnessy and his mother’s name is I don’t actually know and their parents names are and and and and their parents names are and and and and and and.” When Henry offers Allmon the chance to become Hellsmouth’s groom in return for staying away from Henrietta, Allmon accepts: the Faustian gambit is his ticket out of the hell of his past.
Like some grief-stricken Lear on the heath, Allmon stumbles uncertainly into this new world of pedigree and privilege. And like Shakespeare’s despairing King, he has a Fool in his ear: Reuben Bedford Walker III, the diminutive, gay black jockey who will ride Hellsmouth to glory, and the only character in the novel who recognizes exactly where Allmon comes from and, more significantly, where he’s going. Obnoxious, mischievous, splashily literate, Reuben is both all seeing and fearlessly honest. He strips the pretense from the long tradition of Kentucky horse racing (he reveals that African Americans dominated the Kentucky Derby in the first few decades of its existence), and knocks the entire farcical charade of the Southern gentry and its alleged ancestry: “Ain’t no fact in this world like a white man’s tall tale,” he tells Allmon — and, with all the silver-tongued amorality that becomes a Fool, knowingly adds: “History, Allmon — learn your history!”
And so the novel gallops inexorably toward a conclusion that, you could argue, is more than a touch melodramatic (not to mention predictable). But when prose is as good as this, does it matter? A novel, Saul Bellow advised, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, and take risk of mortality and decay. The ground covered by Morgan’s language alone makes other writers sound like stammering provincials. There’s a suggestive moment about two thirds through the book when the Morgan-like narrator interrupts a lavish description of spring to ask: “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? Have I exceeded the bounds of the form, committed a literary sin?” She continues, in a glorious stream of Darwinian lyricism:
I say there’s no such thing — any striving is calcined ash before the heat of the ever-expanding world, its interminability and brightness, which is neither yours nor mine. There aren’t too many words; there aren’t enough words; ten thousand books, all the world’s dictionaries and there would never be enough; we’re infants before the Ohio coursing its ancient way, the icy display of aurora borealis and the redundancies of the night sky, the flakes of snow common and heartbreaking; before the steady rocking of a man and woman, the earthworm’s curling, the leopard killing the mongoose killing the rat over the ant in its workmanlike machinations, the anonymous womb that knit the anonymous, the endless configurations of cloud, before the heron, the tern, the sparrow, and the wily peacock too, the peacock turning and splaying his designs, each particular shimmering feather a universe invested with its own black sun, demanding, Look before you die, Look — Don’t turn away for fear you’ll go blind; the dark comes down soon enough. Until then, burn!