THE SPORT OF KINGS, by C.E. Morgan. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 545 pp., $27.
Even more ambitious than her fine debut, “All the Living,” C.E. Morgan’s majestic, sorrowful new novel transforms the saga of two families into a vast drama encompassing all of American history. Don’t be fooled by the title: “The Sport of Kings” is about horse racing the way “Moby-Dick” is about hunting whales.
Breeding thoroughbreds is an act of rebellion for Henry Forge, whose 1950s childhood is dominated by a brutal father who proclaims their Kentucky estate must always be devoted to farming. Yet he unquestioningly accepts his father’s belief that the world and all its fruits belong by natural right to white male aristocrats like themselves. Henry’s sense of entitlement extends to his daughter Henrietta, with whom he first has sex when she is only 13. It’s his twisted way of reclaiming the girl from her mother, Judith, who exits the marriage bemoaning women’s hard lot in a man’s world. This refrain, decidedly self-serving when uttered by narcissistic Judith, later swells to a chorus of more justifiably bitter female voices.
Morgan’s ability to parse such moral complexities is even more evident as the incest continues into Henrietta’s 20s, and she retaliates through one-night stands with strangers. It’s impossible to dismiss Henry as simply a monster or Henrietta as merely a victim, because the author conveys such an intimate understanding of these tortured people. Against their flailings, she poses the Olympian perspective of a natural order serenely indifferent to humans, evoked in passages of majestic lyricism about the Kentucky landscape. Her exuberant description of the Ohio River is characteristic: “La belle rivière: the Great, the Sparkling, the White; coursing along the path of the ancient Teays, the child of Pleistocene glaciers and a thousand forgotten creeks run dry, formed in perpetuity by the confluence of two prattling streams.”
At the same time, Morgan unsparingly delineates a society shaped by human cruelty and its dire impact on African-American Allmon Shaughnessy. Allmon comes looking for a job at the Forges’ thoroughbred stables in 2003 straight from Blackburn Penitentiary, where a vocational training program revealed his knack with horses. After Henrietta hires him, the narrative crosses the Ohio River and backtracks a quarter-century to trace Allmon’s hardscrabble beginnings in Cincinnati. His ailing, hard-pressed mother and her father, a storefront preacher and veteran civil rights activist, are notable among the teeming cast of secondary characters who populate the bleak tale of an intelligent, sensitive boy with zero prospects, in jail by the time he’s 17.
In Hellsmouth, the Forges’ gorgeous young filly of championship potential, Allmon sees his path to a new life. In Allmon, Henry sees a rival for his daughter — accurately, because the bouts of sex Henrietta aggressively initiates slowly turn into a deeper bond between two damaged people struggling to free themselves from their pasts. But Allmon can’t resist Henry’s offer to send him with Hellsmouth to the facility where she’ll be trained for the 2006 Kentucky Derby. Personal choice and random chance drive both men and Henrietta toward separate but conjoined catastrophes; all three are as bound by their blood and breeding as any thoroughbred. The story of Allmon’s runaway slave ancestor Scipio, interpolated at two crucial moments, painfully embodies the shame and guilt that are slavery’s bequest to black and white Americans alike.
Hellsmouth’s Derby run brings long overdue reckoning to the Forges, but it also offers hope for redemption to anyone who can reconnect with the web of life that enfolds the innocent and the guilty. Death and destruction abound in the apocalyptic finale, but “The Sport of Kings” closes with a darkly radiant vision of transcendence: a wounded man racing to cross one last river, his arms raised to embrace a beloved too long absent. With this extraordinary work, C.E. Morgan moves into the front rank of contemporary writers.