'Horse Heaven' is no paradise for bipeds

HORSE HEAVEN By Jane Smiley Alfred A. Knopf 576 pp., $26

A dangerous trend continues. At almost 600 pages, "Horse Heaven," Jane Smiley's latest novel, is even longer than her last one, "The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton." (Even its title was too long.)

Without apparent irony, the advance publicity for "Horse Heaven" boasts that this new novel is paced like "Moo," Smiley's satire of a Midwestern agricultural university. That's no bull. "Moo" had some nice features, but its lame pacing certainly wasn't one of them. In chapters named for the months over two years, "Horse Heaven" perfectly conveys the sensation of time passing. Slowly.

The novel's herd of loosely related characters are all involved with horse racing, breeding, training, and buying. Almost every chapter introduces new characters. We meet owners like Alex Maybrick, "a successful manufacturer and importer of heavy metal castings from distant impoverished nationlike locations," and his wife Rosalind, who's attended everywhere by her comical terrier. We watch trainers like Farley, a sensitive man guided by Tibetan principles, and Buddy Crawford, a crooked winner tormented by Jesus. We follow ranch managers like Krista, who tries to balance her work and motherhood, or Deirdre Donohue, a lonely woman who pushes all nonhorse friends away. We ride with Roberto in his first race. We giggle as the mystic Elizabeth Zada channels horses' thoughts and dispenses sex advice. We sigh as little Audrey falls in love with an old gray. We cheer for Tiffany, the Wal-Mart checker who's dating the rapper Ho Ho.

And there are the horses, helpfully introduced - unlike the biped characters - in a prologue. When Elizabeth Zada isn't around to read their minds, Smiley narrates their equine thoughts.

Of course, the real problem isn't the novel's length or the number of characters. It's the fact that the plot rides off in all directions. Every time we get comfortable with one group, Smiley forces us to change horses midstream. It's a method Tom Wolfe used in "A Man in Full" (1998), but his disparate plots eventually twisted into a single wildly engaging story. (Ironically, the 12 pages about horses in his huge book are more visceral than anything in these 600.)

None of these characters seems capable of giving this novel sufficient focus, but several of them remind us why Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for "A Thousand Acres" (1991).

The burden of loving an animal while training it toward a deadly win is rendered here with heartbreaking clarity. She's particularly good at describing emotional inertia, the way people cling to painful relationships and unsatisfying jobs because they're anxious about possible changes. When a wealthy owner falls in love with a pensive trainer, hairline fractures spread through several lives. "One thing Rosalind Maybeck realized about hopeless affairs," Smiley writes ruefully, "was that they were certainly enlightening. She knew more about herself, Al, Dick, Louisa, life, love, and horses than she had ever known before, and probably more than it was healthy to know. Of course she should have settled for knowing about fine collectibles. [Her husband's] children would have joked for the rest of her life about how shallow and empty she was, and she would have gone to her grave and disappeared without leaving a trace, even for herself, but that opportunity was past now."

There are quirky touches of wit here, too, such as the description of Mr. Tompkins, one of the owners, who insists on communicating only by e-mail with the people sitting around him - even "hello" and "OK." Smiley effectively satirizes the grotesque wealth of the owners, the perverse "work ethic" of gamblers, and the "whole socially unredeemed enterprise" of racing.

But then Smiley is capable of making characters say things like "I don't know what love is anymore." When a line breaks like that, there's nothing to do but take it out back and shoot it.

Horse romantics may find the book's behind-the-scenes detail engaging enough, but others are likely to look this gift horse in the mouth and see an old nag.

* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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