Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Sonby John Jeremiah Sullivan
"Sullivan has found the transcendent in the horse."--Sports Illustrated
Winner of a 2004 Whiting Writers' Award
One evening late in his life, veteran sportswriter Mike Sullivan was asked by his son what he remembered best from his three decades in the press box. The answer came as a surprise. "I was at Secretariat's Derby, in '73. That was ... just/i>
"Sullivan has found the transcendent in the horse."--Sports Illustrated
Winner of a 2004 Whiting Writers' Award
One evening late in his life, veteran sportswriter Mike Sullivan was asked by his son what he remembered best from his three decades in the press box. The answer came as a surprise. "I was at Secretariat's Derby, in '73. That was ... just beauty, you know?"
John Jeremiah Sullivan didn't know, not really-but he spent two years finding out, journeying from prehistoric caves to the Kentucky Derby in pursuit of what Edwin Muir called "our long-lost archaic companionship" with the horse. The result-winner of a National Magazine Award and named a Book of the Year by The Economist magazine-is an unprecedented look at Equus caballus, incorporating elements of memoir, reportage, and the picture gallery.
In the words of the New York Review of Books, Blood Horses "reads like Moby-Dick as edited by F. Scott Fitzgerald . . . Sullivan is an original and greatly gifted writer."
“Wisdom that is both personal and universal . . . Brilliant” Chicago Tribune
“A splendid account of [the] Triple Crown . . . In horses' beauty and power, and with their hint of danger even when schooled, Sullivan senses a restoration of what has been lost to us.” The New York Times
“As unconventionally lovely a book as you are likely to read for some time.” The Arkansas Democrat Gazette
“A clear picture of a highly specialized world . . . A gem of curiosity.” The Associated Press
“Sullivan subtly extends the theme of bloodlines to make this book as much about family as it is about horses . . . Its appeal isn't limited to the equine crowd.” Outside
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Notes of a Sportswriter's Son
By John Jeremiah Sullivan
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2004 John Jeremiah Sullivan
All rights reserved.
It was in the month of May, three years ago, by a hospital bed in Columbus, Ohio, where my father was recovering from what was supposed to have been a quintuple bypass operation but became, on the surgeon's actually seeing the heart, a sextuple. His face, my father's face, was pale. He was thinner than I had seen him in years. A stuffed bear that the nurses had loaned him lay crooked in his lap; they told him to hug it whenever he stood or sat down, to keep the stitches in his chest from tearing. I complimented him on the bear when I walked in, and he gave me one of his looks, dropping his jaw and crossing his eyes as he rolled them back in their sockets. It was a look he assumed in all kinds of situations but that always meant the same thing: Can you believe this?
Riverside Methodist Hospital (the river being the Olentangy): my family had a tidy little history there, or at least my father and I had one. It was to Riverside that I had been rushed from a Little League football game when I was twelve, both of my lower right leg bones broken at the shin in such a way that when the whistle was blown and I sat up on the field, after my first time carrying the ball all season, I looked down to find my toes pointing a perfect 180 degrees from the direction they should have been pointing in, at which sight I went into mild shock on the grass at the fifty-yard line and lay back to admire the clouds. Only the referee's face obstructed my view. He kept saying, "Watch your language, son," which seemed comical, since as far as I knew I had not said a word.
I seem to remember, or may have deduced, that my father walked in slowly from the sidelines then with the exceptionally calm demeanor he showed during emergencies, and put his hand on my arm, and said something encouraging, doubtless a little shocked himself at the disposition of my foot — a little regretful too, it could be, since he, a professional sportswriter who had been a superb all-around athlete into his twenties and a Little League coach at various times, must have known that I should never have been on the field at all. Running back was the only viable position for me, in fact, given that when the coach had tried me at other places on the line, I had tended nonetheless to move away from the other players. My lone resource was my speed; I still had a prepubescent track runner's build and was the fastest player on the team. The coach had noticed that I tended to win the sprints and thought he saw an opportunity. But what both of us failed to understand was that a running back must not only outrun the guards — typically an option on only the most flawlessly executed plays — but often force his way past them, knock them aside. Such was never going to happen.
In fairness, the coach had many other things to worry about. Our team, which had no name, lacked both talent and what he called "go." In the car headed home from our first two games, I could tell by the way my father avoided all mention of what had taken place on the field that we were pathetic — not Bad News Bears pathetic, for we never cut up or "wanted it" or gave our all. At practice a lot of the other players displayed an indifference to the coach's advice that suggested they might have been there on community service.
The coach's son, Kyle, was our starting quarterback. When practice was not going Kyle's way, that is, when he was either not on the field, having been taken off in favor of the second-stringer, who was excellent, or when he was on the field and throwing poorly, Kyle would begin to cry. He cried not childish tears, which might have made me wonder about his life at home with the coach and even feel for him a little, but bitter tears, too bitter by far for a twelve-year-old. Kyle would then do a singular thing: he would fling down his helmet and run, about forty yards, to the coach's car, a beige Cadillac El Dorado, which was always parked in the adjacent soccer field. He would get into the car, start the engine, roll down all four windows, and — still crying, I presumed, maybe even sobbing now in the privacy of his father's automobile — play Aerosmith tapes at volumes beyond what the El Dorado's system was designed to sustain. The speakers made crunching sounds. The coach would put up a show of ignoring these antics for five or ten minutes, shouting more loudly at us, as if to imply that such things happened in the sport of football. But before long Kyle, exasperated, would resort to the horn, first honking it and then holding it down. Then he would hold his fist out the driver's-side window, middle finger extended. The coach would leave at that point and walk, very slowly, to the car. While the rest of us stood on the field, he and Kyle would talk. Soon the engine would go silent. When the two of them returned, practice resumed, with Kyle at quarterback.
None of this seemed remarkable to me at the time. We were new to Columbus, having just moved there from Louisville (our house had been right across the river, in the knobs above New Albany, Indiana), and I needed friends. So I watched it all happen with a kind of dumb, animal acceptance, sensing that it could come to no good. And suddenly it was that final Saturday, and Kyle had given me the ball, and something very brief and violent had happened, and I was watching a tall, brawny man-child bolt up and away from my body, as though he had woken up next to a rattlesnake. I can still see his eyes as they took in my leg. He was black, and he had an afro that sprung outward when he ripped off his helmet. He looked genuinely confused about how easily I had broken. As the paramedics were loading me onto the stretcher, he came over and said he was sorry.
At Riverside they set my leg wrong. An X ray taken two weeks later revealed that I would walk with a limp for the rest of my life if the leg were not rebroken and reset. For this I was sent to a doctor named Moyer, a specialist whom other hospitals would fly in to sew farmers' hands back on, that sort of thing. He was kind and reassuring. But for reasons I have never been able to fit back together, I was not put all the way under for the resetting procedure. They gave me shots of a tranquilizer, a fairly weak one, to judge by how acutely conscious I was when Dr. Moyer gripped my calf with one hand and my heel with the other and said, "John, the bones have already started to knit back together a little bit, so this is probably going to hurt." My father was outside smoking in the parking lot at that moment, and said later he could hear my screams quite clearly. That was my first month in Ohio.
Two years after the injury had healed, I was upstairs in my bedroom at our house on the northwest side of Columbus when I heard a single, fading "Oh!" from the first-floor hallway. My father and I were the only ones home at the time, and I took the staircase in a bound, terrified. Turning the corner, I almost tripped over his head. He was on his back on the floor, unconscious, stretched out halfway into the hall, his feet and legs extending into the bathroom. Blood was everywhere, but although I felt all over his head I couldn't find a source. I got him onto his feet and onto the couch and called the paramedics, who poked at him and said that his blood pressure was "all over the place." So they manhandled him onto a stretcher and took him to Riverside.
It turned out that he had simply passed out while pissing, something, we were told, that happens to men in their forties (he was at the time forty-five). The blood had all gushed from his nose, which he had smashed against the sink while falling. Still, the incident scared him enough to make him try again to quit smoking — to make him want to quit, anyway, one of countless doomed resolutions.
My father was desperately addicted to cigarettes. It is hard for me to think about him, to remember him, without a ghostly neural whiff of tobacco smoke registering in my nostrils, and when I have trouble seeing him clearly I can bring him into focus by summoning the yellowed skin on the middle and index fingers of his left hand, or the way the hairs of his reddish brown mustache would brush the filter of the cigarette as he drew it in to inhale, or the way he pursed his lips and tucked in his chin when exhaling down through his nose, which he made a point of doing in company. Once, in the mid-nineties, he lit up in the rest room during an international flight (a felony, I believe). A stewardess called ahead to alert the authorities, and he was nearly arrested after landing at the airport, but the coach of the team he was traveling with helped him grovel his way out of it. There were other little humiliations: places we were asked to leave, inappropriate moments at which he would suddenly disappear. He was absentminded, a trait that did not mix well with the constant presence of fire. Every so often I came home from school to find another small black hole burned into the chair where he sat. And there was the time a garbage bag into which he had tossed the contents of an ashtray caught fire in our garage, forcing my mother to point out to him again, with a look half earnest and half hopeless, that he was putting us all in danger.
About once a year he would decide to stop, but it was rare that he could go a full day without a "puff," and as long as he was sneaking puffs, the abyss of total regression was only a black mood away. He tried to keep his failures a secret, even allowing us to congratulate him for having gone two days or a week without smoking when in fact the campaign had ended within hours, as I realize now with adulthood's slightly less gullible eye: the long walks, "to relax," from which he would come back chewing gum, or the thing he would be stuffing into his pocket as he left the store. Sooner or later he would tire of the effort involved in these shams and simply pull out a pack while we sat in the living room, all of us, and there would be a moment, which grew familiar over time, when we would be watching him sidelong, looks of disappointment barely contained in our faces, and he would be staring ahead at the television, a look of shame barely contained in his, and then, just as the tension neared the point of someone speaking, he would light the cigarette, and that would be it. We would go back to our books.
The trip to the hospital — or rather the vow he made, when he got home, that enough was finally enough — seemed different. Before that afternoon his body had been weirdly impervious to insult. This was a man who never got a cold, and who was told by a radiologist, after thirty years of constant, heavy smoking, that his lungs were "pink," which almost made my mother cry with frustration. But now the whole neighborhood had seen him being loaded into the ambulance, and the enforced silence surrounding the question of his health — which, if it could only be maintained, would keep consequence at bay — had been broken.
He lasted four or five days. I assume so, anyway. My mother found him hiding in the garage, the "patch" on his arm and in his mouth a Kool Super-Long (his cigarette of choice from the age of fourteen — he liked to say that he was the last white man in America to smoke Kools). This doubling up on the nicotine, we had been warned, could quickly lead to a heart attack, so he threw out the patches and went back to smoking a little over two packs a day.
The thing they say about a man like my father, and a great many sportswriters match the description, is that he "did not take care of himself." I cannot think of more than one or two conventionally healthy things that he did in my lifetime, unless I were to count prodigious napping and laughter (his high, sirenlike laugh that went HEEE Hee hee hee, HEEE Hee hee hee could frighten children, and was so loud that entire crowds in movie theaters would turn from the screen to watch him, which excruciated the rest of the family). In addition to the chain-smoking, he drank a lot, rarely ordering beer except by the pitcher and keeping an oft-replaced bottle of whiskey on top of the fridge, though he showed its effects — when he showed them at all — in only the most good-natured way. Like many people with Irish genes, he had first to decide that he wanted to be drunk before he could feel drunk, and that happened rarely. Still, the alcohol must have hastened his slide from the fitness he had enjoyed in his youth. He also ate badly and was heavy, at times very heavy, though strangely, especially taking into consideration a total lack of exercise, he retained all his life the thin legs and powerful calves of a runner. He was one of those people who are not meant to be fat, and I think it took him by surprise when his body at last began to give down: it had served him so well.
Anyone with a mother or father who possesses fatalistic habits knows that the children of such parents endure a special torture during their school years, when the teachers unspool those horror stories of what neglect of the body can do; it is a kind of child abuse, almost, this fear. I recall as a boy of five or six creeping into my parents' room on Sunday mornings, when he would sleep late, and standing by the bed, staring at his shape under the sheets for the longest time to be sure he was breathing; a few times, or more than a few times, I dreamt that he was dead and went running in, convinced it was true. One night I lay in my own bed and concentrated as hard as I could, believing, under the influence of some forgotten work of popular pseudoscience, that if I did so the age at which he would die would be revealed to me: six and three were the numerals that floated before my eyelids. That seemed far enough into the future and, strange to say, until the day he died, eight years short of the magic number, it held a certain comfort.
We pleaded with him, of course, to treat himself better — though always with trepidation, since the subject annoyed him and, if pressed, could send him into a rage. Most of the time we did not even get to the subject, he was so adept at heading it off with a joke: when a man who is quite visibly at risk for heart attack, stroke, and cancer crushes out what is left of a six-inch-long mentholated cigarette before getting to work on a lethal fried meal ("a hearty repast," as he would have called it), clinks his knife and fork together, winks at you, and says, with a brogue, "Heart smart!" you are disarmed. I have a letter from him, written less than a month before he died, in response to my having asked him about an exercise regimen that his doctor had prescribed. In typically epithetic style (it was his weakness), he wrote, "Three days ago didst I most stylishly drive these plucky limbs once around the 1.2-mile girth of Antrum Lake — and wasn't it a lark watching the repellently 'buff' exercise cultists scatter and cower in fear as I gunned the Toyota around the turns!"
And still we would ask him to cut back, to come for a walk, to order the salad. I asked him, my brother and sisters asked him, my mother practically begged him until they divorced. His own father had died young, of a heart attack; his mother had died of lung cancer when I was a child. But it was no use. He had his destiny. He had his habits, no matter how suicidal, and that he change them was not among the things we had a right to ask.
It hardly helped that his job kept him on the road for months out of the year, making any routine but the most compulsive almost impossible, or that the work was built around deadlines and nervous tension, banging out the story between the fourteenth inning, the second overtime, whatever it was, and the appointed hour. Among my most vivid childhood memories are the nights when I was allowed to sit up with my father in the press box at Cardinal Stadium after Louisville Redbirds home games (the Redbirds were the St. Louis Cardinals' triple-A farm team, but for a brief stretch the local fans got behind them as if they were major league, breaking the season attendance record for the division in 1985). While the game was in progress, I had a seat beside him, and I watched with fascination as he and the other reporters filled in their scorebooks with the arcane markings known to true aficionados, a letter or number or shape for even the most inconsequential event on the field. Every so often a foul ball would come flying in through the window, barely missing our heads, and my father would stand and wave his ever-present white cloth handkerchief out the window, drawing a murmur from the crowd.
My regular presence up there likely grated on the other sportswriters, but they put up with me because of my father. Every few months, I get a letter from one of his old colleagues saying how much less fun the job is without him. Last year I came across an article in Louisville Magazine by John Hughes, who worked with him at the Courier-journal. "Things happened in those newsrooms that are no longer possible in this journalistically correct era," Hughes remembered. "The New Year's night, for instance, when former C-J sportswriter Mike Sullivan made a hat out of a paper bag from my beer run and wore it while writing about the tackle that ended Woody Hayes's coaching career." This was typical. Once, when I was with my father on the floor at the newspaper office — I was probably five — he saw that I was excited by the pneumatic tubes that the separate departments used to communicate back then, so he started encouraging me to put my shoes and, eventually, my socks into the canisters and shoot them to various friends of his. When a voice came over the intercom saying, "Whoever keeps sending this shit through the tubes, stop it!" we had to bend over to keep from hooting and giving ourselves away. In the press box, he would trot me out to tell jokes I had learned. One of these involved the word "obese," and when I got to that part, I paused and asked, out of politeness, "Do all of you know what obese means?" The room exploded. For him, this was like having his child win the national spelling bee.
Excerpted from Blood Horses by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Copyright © 2004 John Jeremiah Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
John Jeremiah Sullivan is a writer-at-large for GQ and a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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It was a nice book i liked it
If you like Sullivan, you should read this. It is his investigation into thoroughbreds and his deceased father's life as a sportswriter in Kentucky. It is done with intelligence and sensitivity--Sullivan is digging into the obsession we have with the ineffable, be it the thoroughbred or are own fathers.
The author has captured all the nuances of a fascinating sport. His open relationship with his sports writer father and wonderful mother provides an interesting interwoven aspect to a study of the horse and the horse industry.