The Barnes & Noble Review
To horse racing and baseball fans alike, spring is the season to get reacquainted with their heroes; it is the time to grab a scorecard, place a few bets, and head to the nearest dusty expanse of grass. Most of all, it's the time to dream, because on a baseball diamond or a horse track anything is possible. Judging by her magnificent new novel, Horse Heaven, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley understands this fact. With utter authority and aplomb, her seventh novel opens up the world of horse racing as never before; it takes us on a circuit from Del Mar to Saratoga and back again, bringing to life the owners, the trainers, and (most humorously) the horses themselves. While Horse Heaven is likely to be the definitive novel about horse racing, it is more than just a well-researched sojourn in this nervy world. It is a meditation on how we gamble at life's racetrack, wagering most cautiously when that bet is for happiness.
To tell this epic tale (it has nearly three dozen characters), Smiley employs an unusual narrative strategy: She sets the dramas of her human characters against the backdrop of those of her horses. We meet and get to know every horse in an intimate way, from Justabob, an imperious stallion with anger management issues, to Epic Steam, an ornery black stud with a heart the size of a Volkswagen. They are affectionate when loved, truculent when provoked, and mournful when they lose a friend on the road to the big leagues. With their steaming, muscled flanks and armies of helpers, these horses know they're important. But all they really want is a scratch behind the ear, plenty of hay, and maybe a nicker and a nuzzle or two. The same could be said for their attendants.
Though they desire the same thing as their thoroughbreds -- to win a little, and to be loved more -- Smiley's human cast are a hapless lot. There's the tycoon Al Maybrick, who has his own anger management issues and a drinking habit he barely keeps in check. Al and his trophy wife, Rosalind, take up horses as a hobby, but soon the horses become a repository for the hopes Al used to have for his marriage. Indeed, Al goes to the track to escape the fact that he and his wife don't relate anymore, while Rosalind goes shopping for expensive tchotchkes. But it's not just the owners who throw their dreams into horses. Married for 25 years to an agoraphobic woman, Al's trainer, Dick Winterson, spends most of his time at the track because he finds his horses' expectations easier to live up to than those of his wife. When he and Rosalind meet up, Winterson realizes that he's been missing something essential in his life away from the stalls.
While Smiley's characters differ in their particular domestic maladies, they are united in their love of horses. But until they encounter each other in the right way, they can't achieve the happiness they continually seek on the track. Smiley does a wonderful job of weaving together these two themes -- horses and happiness -- showing us that, as in horse racing, there is no true secret to happiness. As one avid gambler says, "It's a mystery that can't be plumbed by the form, by the theories, by any known science and it happens every day." But is winning -- or happiness, for that matter -- worth striving for? Tossing in the towel, another of Smiley's characters muses, "Wasn't the lesson of racing that there was no meaning, no pattern, nothing except chaos daily engaged with?" Winning at horses and winning at marriage, one concludes, are patterns of organizing chaos within ourselves.
As in her previous novels A Thousand Acres, Moo, and The All True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, Jane Smiley strikes a sublime balance between levity and gravity in Horse Heaven, making us laugh one moment and ponder where we should place our heaviest wagers during the next. Yes, Jane Smiley is out of the gate once again, leading the field of contemporary novelists with long, effortless strides. And thanks to Horse Heaven, we now know why the grass on a horse track oval appears so hopefully green.
The tension and frustration of the racing life can be waring in Horse Heaven, and yet Ms. Smiley dispenses happiness at the novel's conclusion. Her skill at psychological probing is splendid; her images...a colt's nostrils round and open like the blossoms of a fox glove are even better.
Ms. Jane Smiley's chunky book Horse Heaven resembles a bale of hay. Chewable, fragrant and thick, this is the good stuff, the first cutting.
Wall Street Journal
Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
A "wordy," "interesting journey" through the universe of horse racing is revealed in this novel that spans two years on the circuit, from Kentucky to California to New York and Paris. The "wide range of characters" "sucked readers in fast out of the gate." While it "raced to the finish," other reviewers said it was "predictable" and "in the final stretch, a good filly, but not great."
As chance and destiny head into the homestretch, Smiley's novel offers plenty of surprise for those readers who are attentive enough to keep the various characters distinctly in mind while unraveling a myriad of subplots. By the end, as in a marathon, the suspense over who'll win is secondary to the satisfaction of finishing.
Book: The Magazine for the Reading Life
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The Chinese calendar aside, 2000 may be the Year of the Horse. Almost neck and neck with Alyson Hagy's Keeneland, this novel about horses and their breeders, owners, trainers, grooms, jockeys, traders, bettors and other turf-obsessed humans is another winner. Smiley, it turns out, knows a prodigious amount about Thoroughbreds, and she is as good at describing the stages of their lives, their temperaments and personalities as she is in chronicling the ambitions, financial windfalls and ruins, love affairs, partings and reconciliations of her large cast of human characters. With settings that range from California and Kentucky to Paris, the novel covers two years in which the players vie with each other to produce a mount that can win high-stakes races. Readers will discover that hundreds of things can go wrong with a horse, from breeding through birth, training and racing, and that every race has variables and hazards that can produce danger and death, as well as the loss of millions of dollars. (A scene in which one horse stumbles and sets off a chain reaction of carnage is heartbreaking.) Characters who plan, scheme, connive and yearn for a winner include several greedy, impetuous millionaires and their wives; one trainer who is a model of rectitude, and another who has found Jesus but is crooked to the core; two preadolescent, horse-obsessed kids; a knockout black woman whose beauty is the entrance key to the racing world; the horses themselves (cleverly, Smiley depicts a horse communicator who can see into the equine mind); and one very sassy Jack Russell dog. Written with high spirits and enthusiasm, distinguished by Smiley's wry humor (as in Moo), the novel gallops into the home stretch without losing momentum. Fans of A Thousand Acres may feel that Smiley has deserted the realm of serious literature for suspense and romance, but this highly readable novel shows that she can perform in both genres with lan. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Smiley, author of nine earlier works of fiction including The Age of Grief and A Thousand Acres (a Pulitzer Prize winner), has written the Gone with the Wind of horse books. Those involved in the equestrian world will experience a thrill of recognition when hearing about the various types of trainers, owners, and, of course, the horses themselves. The trainers include a Zen practitioner who considers each horse a koan to be solved; a crooked trainer who gets religion and repents, however briefly; and a married trainer who falls in love with the wife of an owner. The horses are a rogue stallion, a timid mare, and an amazingly focused gelding named Limitless. The horses and people are both talented and flawed yet all find redemption. Mary Beth Hurt is an exceptional reader. Highly recommended for all public libraries.--Patsy Gray, Huntsville P.L., AL Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Internet Book Watch
This novel of horse racing provides an engrossing set of characters whose lives revolve around the horse track and the underlying politics and personalities which dominate it. Fans of Dick Francis will find this a lively, engrossing account which is packed with realistic action.
Internet Book Watch
Smiley's wonderful sense about human nature keeps this earthy comic effort on track.
The New Yorker
By the novel's finish, the world of horses has become at once radiant in its particularities and as familiar as our own.
What's remarkable about Smiley's handling of
horses as characters is that she manages to bring it
off at all -- and more, she does it brilliantly . . . It's
deeply satisfying to read a work of fiction so
informed about its subject and so alive to every
nuance and detail . . . Smart, warmhearted,
The New York Times Book Review
Read an Excerpt
november 1 / JACK RUSSELL
On the second Sunday morning in November, the day after the Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park (which he did not get to this year, because the trek to the West Coast seemed a long one from Westchester County and he didn't have a runner, had never had a runner, how could this possibly be his fault, hadn't he spent millions breeding, training, and running horses? Wasn't it time he had a runner in the Breeders' Cup or got out of the game altogether, one or the other?), Alexander P. Maybrick arose from his marriage bed at 6:00 a.m., put on his robe and slippers, and exited the master suite he shared with his wife, Rosalind. On the way to the kitchen, he passed the library, his office that adjoined the library, the weight room, the guest bathroom, the living room, and the dining room. In every room his wife had laid a Persian carpet of exceptional quality—his wife had an eye for quality in all things—and it seemed like every Persian carpet in every room every morning was adorned with tiny dark, dense turds deposited there by Eileen, the Jack Russell terrier. Eileen herself was nestled up in bed with his wife, apparently sleeping, since she didn't raise even her head when Mr. Maybrick arose, but Mr. Maybrick knew she was faking. No Jack Russell sleeps though movement of any kind except as a ruse.
Mr. Maybrick had discussed this issue with Rosalind on many levels. It was not as though he didn't know what a Jack Russell was all about when Rosalind brought the dog home. A Jack Russell was about making noise, killing small animals and dragging their carcasses into the house, attacking much larger dogs, refusing to be house-trained, and in all other ways living a primitive life. Rosalind had promised to start the puppy off properly, with a kennel and a trainer and a strict routine and a book about Jack Russells, and every other thing that worked with golden retrievers and great Danes and mastiffs, and dogs in general. But Eileen wasn't a dog, she was a beast, and the trainer had been able to do only one thing with her, which was stop her from barking. And thank God for that, because if the trainer had not stopped Eileen from barking Mr. Maybrick would have had to strangle her. Rosalind, who sent her underwear to the cleaners and had the windows washed every two weeks and kept the oven spotless enough to sterilize surgical instruments, tried to take the position that the turds were small and harmless, and that the carpets could handle them, but really she just thought the dog was cute, even after Eileen learned to jump from the floor to the kitchen counters, and then walked around on them with her primevally dirty feet, click click click, right in front of Mr. Maybrick, even after Eileen began to sleep under the covers, pushing her wiry, unsoft coat right into Mr. Maybrick's nose in the middle of the night. "Do you know where this dog has been?" Mr. Maybrick would say to Rosalind, and Rosalind would reply, "I don't want to think about that."
Mr. Maybrick was a wealthy and powerful man, and in the end, that was what stopped him. He knew that, in the larger scheme of things, he had been so successful, and, in many ways, so unpleasant about it all (he was a screamer and a bully, tough on everyone), that Eileen had come into his life as a corrective. She weighed one-twentieth of what he did. He could crush her between his two fists. He could also get rid of her, either by yelling at his wife or by sending her off to the SPCA on his own, but he dared not. There was some abyss of megalomania that Eileen guarded the edge of for Mr. Maybrick, and in the mornings, when he walked to the kitchen to get his coffee, he tried to remember that.
The first thing Mr. Maybrick did after he poured his coffee was to call his horse-trainer. When the trainer answered with his usual "Hey, there!," Mr. Maybrick said, "Dick!," and then Dick said, "Oh. Al." He always said it just like that, as if he were expecting something good to happen, and Mr. Maybrick had happened instead. Mr. Maybrick ignored this and sipped his coffee while Dick punched up his response. "Can I do something for you, Al?"
"Yeah. You can put that Laurita filly in the allowance race on Thursday."
"You've got a condition book, then."
"Oh, sure. I want to know what races are being run. You trainers keep everything so dark—"
"Well, sure. Al, listen—"
"Dick, Frank Henderson thinks it's the perfect race for her. A little step up in class, but not too much competi—"
"I want to do it. Henderson said—"
"Frank Henderson knows horses and racing, right? His filly won the Kentucky Oaks last year, right? He would have had that other horse in the sprint yesterday if it hadn't broken down. Listen to me, Dick. I shouldn't have to beg you." This was more or less a threat, and as he said it, not having actually intended to, Mr. Maybrick reflected upon how true it was. He was the owner. Dick Winterson was the trainer. The relationship was a simple one. Henderson was always telling him not to be intimidated by trainers.
"We'll see." "You always say that. Look, I don't want to watch the Breeders' Cup on TV again next year. Henderson thinks this filly's got class."
"She does, but I want to go slow with her. We have to see how the filly—"
Mr. Maybrick hung up. He didn't slam down the phone—he no longer did that—he simply hung up. If Dick had known him as long as Mr. Maybrick had known himself, he would have realized what a good thing it was, simply hanging up. And here was another thing he could use with his wife. He could say that if he didn't have to pass all those turds in the morning he could start off calmer and his capacity for accepting frustration would last a little longer. It was scientific. When they didn't have the dog, he had gotten practically to the fourth phone call without offending anyone. Now he got maybe to the second. He took another sip of his coffee, and called his broker, then his partner, then his general manager, then his other partner, then his secretary, then his broker again, then his AA sponsor (who was still in bed). This guy's name was Harold W., and he was a proctologist as well as an alcoholic. Mr. Maybrick had chosen him because he was a man of infinite patience and because he knew everything there was to know about prostate glands.
"I want a drink," said Mr. Maybrick. "There's turds all over the house. I bet you can understand that one."
"Good morning, Al. What's really up? You haven't had a drink in two years." "But I'm always on the verge. It's a real struggle with me."
"Say your serenity prayer."
"God—" They said the serenity prayer together.
"Look," said Al, "I got this pain in my groin—"
"No freebies. That's the rule. My partner will be happy to—"
"It's like water trickling out of a hose. I can't—"
"You need to be working on your fourth step."
"What's that one again?" "Taking a fearless inventory of your character defects."
"Trying to get something for nothing is one of your character defects."
"I never pay retail."
"Then you need to work on your third step, Al."
"What's that one?"
"Turning your life over to your higher power."
Mr. Maybrick cleared his throat, as he always did when someone said those higher-power words. Those words always made an image of Ralph Peters come into his head, the guy who used to be head of the Mercantile Exchange in Chicago, and who foiled the Hunt brothers when they tried to corner the silver market back in '80. Peters was an Austrian guy. He had "higher power" written all over him, and he was the last guy Mr. Maybrick had ever feared. He would never turn his life over to Peters.
Harold went on, "Let's think a little more about the last day. What about rage? Have you been raging?"
"Well, sure. A guy in my posi—"
"Should be filled with gratitude. Your position is a gratitude position. Thank you, God, for every frustration, every bad deal, every monetary loss, every balk and obstacle and resistance."
Harold often teased him in this way. Mr. Maybrick felt better for it, because it made him think Harold W. liked him after all, and it reminded him, too, of when his old man had been in a good mood. Joshing him.
"Every non-cooperator, every son of a bitch, every idiot who gets in my way, every slow driver, every—"
"I've got to go to the hospital."
"But I— There's wine in the liquor cabinet."
"Throw it out. I've got to go. The assholes are accumulating."
Mr. Maybrick laughed. Harold W. laughed, too. Harold W. wasn't a saint, by any means. He had been in AA for thirty-two years, at a meeting almost every day. Mr. Maybrick didn't know whether to respect that or have contempt for it, but he knew for a fact that Harold W. was a force to be reckoned with, and he thanked him politely, ragelessly, and hung up the phone.
Now Eileen trotted into the room. It was clear to Mr. Maybrick that the dog was intentionally ignoring him. She clicked over to her bowl and checked it, took a drink from the water dish, circumnavigated the cooking island, and then, casually, leapt onto the granite counter and trotted toward the sink. "Get down, Eileen," said Mr. Maybrick. It was as if he hadn't spoken. Eileen cocked her little tan head and peered into the garbage disposal, noting that the stopper was in place. Her little stump of a tail flicked a couple of times, and she seemed to squat down. She stretched her paw toward the stopper, but her legs were too short; she couldn't reach it. She surveyed the situation for a moment, then went behind the sink, picked up a pinecone that had been hidden there, and jumped down. Only now did she look at Mr. Maybrick. She dropped the pinecone at his slippered feet and backed up three steps, her snapping black gaze boring into his. "I don't want to do that, Eileen," he said. Her strategy was to take little steps backward and forward and then spin in a tight circle, gesturing at the pinecone with her nose. But she never made a sound.
"You're not a retriever, Eileen, you're a terrier. Go outside and kill something."
Indeed, Eileen was a terrier, and with terrier determination, she resolved that Mr. Maybrick would ultimately throw the pinecone. She continued dancing, every few seconds picking up the pinecone and dropping it again. She was getting cuter and cuter. That was her weapon. Mr. Maybrick considered her a very manipulative animal. He looked away from her and took another sip of his (third) cup of coffee. Now she barked once, and when he looked at her, she went up on her hind legs. She had thighs like a wrestler—she seemed to float. Mr. Maybrick had often thought that a horse as athletic as this worthless dog would get into the Kentucky Derby, then the Breeders' Cup, win him ten million dollars on the track, and earn him five million a year in the breeding shed for, say, twenty years. That was $110 million; it had happened to others. He had been racing and breeding horses for eleven years, and it had never happened to him. This was just the sort of thing that made you a little resentful, and rightfully so, whatever Harold W. had to say about gratitude. He closed his eyes when he felt himself sliding that way, beginning to count up the millions he had spent running horses and thinking about deserving. With his eyes closed, Al could hear her drop the pinecone rhythmically on the tile, chock chock chock chock, the bass, her little toenails clicking a tune around it. Didn't he deserve a really big horse? Didn't he? And then, while his eyes were still closed, dog and pinecone arrived suddenly in his lap, a hard, dense little weight but live, electric. With the shock, he nearly dropped his coffee cup, and as it was, spilled on the counter. "God damn it!" he shouted. Eileen jumped down and trotted away. "Hey! Come here, Eileen," he said. "Eileen!" Eileen sheared off into the living room, and he realized that he had forgotten to let her out. Mr. Maybrick put his arms up on the counter and laid his head upon them.
From the Trade Paperback edition.