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The Boston Phoenix Green Pastures

Jane Smiley's in "Horse Heaven"

By Julia Hanna

MAY 15, 2000: 

Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley (Alfred A. Knopf), 561 pages, $26.

Jane Smiley was bound to write another horse book at some point. The author's shy, toothy smile has something of the equine about it, she's an avid horsewoman, and her first novel -- Barn Blind, published 20 years ago -- tells the tale of a horse-obsessed matriarch driven to succeed in the show ring at any cost. Smiley went on to publish fiction that showed a fearless versatility in subject and genre, from the mystery Duplicate Keys to her recasting of King Lear in A Thousand Acres to the academic satire Moo. Now a seasoned campaigner, she makes an exuberant return to familiar pastures with Horse Heaven, a sprawling soap opera of a book about the horse-racing industry.

Thoroughbreds -- the hot-blooded darlings of the author's affections -- are most easily summarized Daily Racing Form-style, in the music of their pedigree and their racing record. But Smiley's depictions of horses show remarkable psychological depth, in addition to surpassing the standard descriptive fare of glossy coats and large, gentle eyes. Looking after the "scintillating red haunches" of a filly, Buddy Crawford -- a sometimes crooked, sometimes born-again trainer -- enjoys the view from behind: "the shimmering tail like a waterfall, the sharply defined hocks, and below, the graceful lift of perfect pastern angles shading the hollow, silvery heels." A monster colt by the name of Epic Steam is introduced as being "big and shining and all but black. . . . He looked like a Cadillac with a Mafia don inside."

People, of course, have a place in all this greatness. Smiley juggles a cast of trainers, owners, agents, jockeys, vets, breeders, grooms, and gamblers and somehow manages to represent every race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. There's a pasta-loving, philosophical horse masseur named Luciano; there's Elizabeth, a horse "communicator" who gets her best racing tips from an old gray gelding named Mr. T. Improbable as Luciano and Elizabeth sound, they are more convincing than Deirdre Donahue, an Irish trainer whose "darlin' " and "Mother of God" blarney wears thin quickly. Smiley's efforts to give nearly every character his or her due is admirable (especially since they number in the dozens), but sometimes you wish the parade of humanity would step aside and let the horses get to the gate more often.

Small missteps aside, Horse Heaven trots briskly along, cutting from this story to that and moving with ease from New York's Aqueduct to Paris's Longchamp to the California tracks of Del Mar, Santa Anita, and Hollywood Park. Despite its size and scope, the novel's intricately woven narrative gives the various plot lines a sense of urgency, especially when characters begin to cross paths with satisfying serendipity.

Smiley also creates the world of modern-day horse racing in persuasive detail, particularly when it comes to revealing the sport's more brutal aspects. It's impossible not to be affected by the vulnerable fragility of two- and three-year-old thoroughbreds running for all they're worth, especially when we're shown what happens when a group of them go down in a chillingly described wreck: "Mighty Again's bulk was warm and huge. Never was a horse so huge as when you had to get him up. They wrapped slings around the knees and hocks, then . . . they got his legs in the air, up and over. . . . It was clear what the problem was -- the left shoulder was smashed, and he had a long gash along his rib cage, which was dented, as well. He stood on three legs. His left foreleg dangled."

Despite the wrenching poignancy of such scenes, horses aren't shown as the victims of a relentless, money-driven industry, even as some of the unlucky ones are numbed with painkillers and raced into the ground. Smiley instead celebrates the simplicity and nobility of their spirit: "[Mr. T.] was a horse. He had no expectations about what was normal. . . . You could go anywhere, do anything, have anything be asked of you, from running and jumping in paradise at one end to starving in Texas at the other."

Although the swirl of humans is compelling enough, it's fitting that Justa Bob, "a brown gelding with no particular distinguishing features" should be the character whose fate moved me most. A seemingly unremarkable everyhorse, Justa Bob has a remarkable heart, winning race after small stakes race until minor injuries begin to take their toll. Shuttled down a line of owners who range from benignly incompetent to ignorant and abusive, he suffers greatly but never loses his sense of self. Justa Bob keeps going, "a smart horse heading down the road toward wisdom. . . . All he had to do to get there was stand quietly, his weight equally distributed on that most stable of structures, four legs." Smiley seems to think that horses have a lot to teach us about life. Horse Heaven is an enjoyable means of instruction.

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