The Sport of Kings is C. E. Morgan's second novel, and it's a big one in every sense: Its 560 pages span more than two centuries of love, hatred, and dramatic action on the part of over a score of interlinked characters, human and equine. Its themes are mythic and scientific and a fusion of the two. It traces changing social and economic arrangements and deals throughout with the crime of slavery and its legacy into the 21st century. Finally, as its title suggests, it is a story of high-stakes horse racing and thoroughbred breeding.
At the book's center is the Forge family and its extensive estate in Kentucky. It was founded in the late 18th century by a certain Samuel Forge, who, accompanied by one of his slaves, made his way from Virginia through the wilderness to stake out the land that became Forge Run Farm. He prospered, becoming rich off agriculture, livestock, and slave labor, and the estate passed down through the generations. The story really picks up in the 1950s, when we meet the family's sixth and seventh generations: John Henry Forge, married to Lavinia, and their young son, Henry.
An angry, brutal man and a deep-dyed racist, John Henry is revolted by the growing civil rights movement. He has plenty of ideas about the innate inferiority of black people and the usefulness of the Klan – "country types, almost unfathomably stupid and passionate" – in carrying out the "justice" that the courts will not. He sets out his noxious views in a magisterial way to Henry, who, most unfortunately, has witnessed his mother and a hired black man, Filip, in a passionate embrace. Seized by the impulse to act upon a grudge he has borne against Filip, Henry hints at what's going on – and instantly regrets it, walking "out of the room, feeling as though an enormous age-old wheel had been set creaking into motion." And indeed it has: "The next morning, Filip did not return from a sudden woodland journey with five men and a length of rope." This retributive villainy will have consequences that detonate at novel's end.
Morgan brings us through Henry's childhood, during which he becomes gripped by the idea of switching Forge Run Farm's business from growing corn to breeding horses – which his incensed father considers nothing but a "a cheap attempt at dignity." The older man is felled by a stroke in 1965, and Henry swiftly puts his scheme in train and soon has a thriving operation, as well as a wife – who leaves him – and one child, Henrietta. Like all the Forges, Henry is fixated on begats, both his family's and his horses', as, to an extent, is his daughter. She, however, takes a Darwinian view of nature, a vision of diversity in contrast to Henry's. He looks inward, toward purity of line, becoming consumed with the idea of breeding back toward an ideal, including an ideal Forge – bad news there – and, in the case of horses, toward Secretariat. Thus he mates a mare who was sired by that great champion to a stallion who also possesses Secretariat's blood. The result is a phenomenal filly named Hellsmouth. Just born, she stands "on stalk legs borrowed from a dam and sire of the same line, a tight constellation of traits to be passed along in due order." And so the novel is on its way to the training stables and high-stakes races.
But as all that has been unfolding, further worlds and perspectives have been opening up. Moving back and forth through time, Morgan has picked up the fate of a slave called Scipio: his escape from Kentucky into Ohio and the tragedy of his life. More centrally, she gives us Allmon Shaughnessy, quite likely the descendant of Scipio, who grows up in Cincinnati, the son of a black mother and an entirely feckless white father. Allmon ends up as a groom for the Forge family, eventually becoming Hellsmouth's dedicated attendant.
I will leave the plot there, though there is much, much more that is surprising, shocking, terrible, and completely absorbing. But now I must say something about Morgan's style, which is as much a presence in this book as any character or theme. Many of her descriptions are powerful and precise, especially in passing on horse lore and in describing such dynamic scenes as breaking a horse, foaling, mating, and, most splendidly, running the races themselves. Here is Hellsmouth – or Hell, as they call her – infuriatingly contrary and matchless at Belmont:
"Breaking from the four hole, Hell slopped and thrashed into the race like an overexcited dog, then settled straightaway into a loopy, loping, embarrassing last. Even as the field began to jostle and strategize along the rail and the far outside, the filly couldn't be bothered and expended no run at all. On she goes, just rolling along 'on her lovely pleasure cruise,' until, finally edging up, she picks up speed to go neck and neck with three other horses. As they enter the homestretch, her jockey gives her one stinging smack with his crop: Her muscles leaping beneath her skin, Hellsmouth exploded out of her gait with such vicious power, her first free stride made the previous three-quarters of a mile seem nothing but a lark. As she shot forward she bore in toward the rail and delivered one, fast teeth-rattling bump to Play Some Music. While Racz cropped and corrected his faltering bay, Hellsmouth drove to the wire with a stride so long and self-assured, so dazzlingly late, that the grandstand rose as a single entity, driven by a surge of energy that seemed to come from the very center of the earth. Farmers three miles distant heard the cry when, fully extended with her limbs threatening the limits of form, Hell shot under the wire."
Such passages are tremendous, but at other times, Morgan seems to be taken over by some grandiose afflatus, her prose swelling to blot out the story itself: "Over [Henrietta's] drowsy head, the daily war of morning ensued: dews rose, shrugging off their sleep and skimming briefly over the fields in the altering dark. After a long night of sleep in the underbelly of the earth, the armored sun rose and charged the horizon, pressing against the dark with long arms until night fell back, wounded and floundering, to earth's antipodal edge."
Elsewhere peculiar and distracting, if not downright Gnostic, conceits spring up: "A man reasons his way to irrational numbers. It was a strange paradox, Mother's beauty was never-ending, thus never repeating, it went on and on and on, an irrationality. Her face was a beautiful math, a womanly number without equivalent fraction." I suppose such writing is a matter of taste, but it is not to mine, and I kept wishing it didn't intrude upon the scene.
Aside from such passages and certain later developments, which are more symbolically potent than completely believable, the novel is a great accomplishment. Each of the key actors possesses enormous psychological depth, each struggles against both self-destructive impulses and the terms of his or her social and economic existence. "Sport of Kings" boasts a plot that maintains tension and pace, and Morgan weaves its characters, its themes, its several histories together in a marvelous display of literary control and follow-through.
Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.