Horse Heaven

Horse Heaven

3.9 23
by Jane Smiley

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"ONE OF THE PREMIER NOVELISTS OF HER GENERATION, possessed of a mastery of craft and an uncompromising vision that grow more powerful with each book . . . Racing's eclectic mix

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"ONE OF THE PREMIER NOVELISTS OF HER GENERATION, possessed of a mastery of craft and an uncompromising vision that grow more powerful with each book . . . Racing's eclectic mix of classes and personalities provides
Smiley with fertile soil . . . Expertly juggling storylines, she investigates the sexual, social, psychological, and spiritual problems of wealthy owners, working-class bettors, trainers on the edge of financial ruin, and, in a typically bold move, horses."
—The Washington Post

—The Boston Sunday Globe

"WITTY, ENERGETIC . . . It's deeply satisfying to read a work of fiction so informed about its subject and so alive to every nuance and detail .
. . [Smiley's] final chapters have a wonderful restorative quality."
—The New York Times Book Review

—San Diego Union-Tribune

Chosen by the Los Angeles Times as One of the Best Books of the Year

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Editorial Reviews
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. (John Freeman)

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Reader's Circle Series
Edition description:
First Trade Paperback Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
8.02(w) x 11.24(h) x 1.08(d)

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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'll see."

"I want to do it. Henderson said—"

"Mr. Henderson—"

"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."

"Oh, yeah."

"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.

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Horse Heaven 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Bogie02 More than 1 year ago
This would be a great summer read! The author's writing style is very easy to read and by the end of the book, you feel as if the characters and the horses are real people. I've read this book once while my mother-in-law has read it twice and enjoyed it just as much the second time as the first time. This title was given to me as a gift and I would recommended it as a gift for anyone that loves horses or just a good story to get lost in during precious moments of peace and quiet.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. Smiley does a remarkable job of bringing to life all of the characters, the horses, the people, and a dog, while maintaining a dry wit. This is a must-read. I highly recommend it!
Addage More than 1 year ago
Requires some patience. Lots of characters including her animals. Austenesque in that manners are an insight to the soul. In theory this novel is about horse racing. Certainly it gives a picture of both the greatness and the cruelty of the sport. Like all comic novels, she pulls her punches at the end. What stands out is her characters--human and animal. Keeping everything straight is a little tricky, but as we work through the vignettes that make up the novel, there are many moments that brings smiles and laughs. She has a very deft touch. Jane Smiley can be pretty unrelenting in her novels. This one, though, has a pretty soft feel that makes you appreciate her insights all the more. Worthy of a second reading.
GypsyAB More than 1 year ago
took me awhile to get into but once youvision the characters the stories come together. couldnt put it down!
Guest More than 1 year ago
In a lighthearted departure from her remarkable 'A Thousand Acres,' Smiley gives us a joyful story of horses and horsepeople. Her book will be a sure hit with anyone who knows horses well enough to appreciate their unique individual personalities. Her humans are like our own friends and neighbors -- flawed, complex, but generally good -- and, like the horses they own, they are the products of their environment and their handling. This is an appealing, readable, and simply fun book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have relatively little knowledge of racing but do love horses. This book is delicious. Not a fast read, but what a fascinating one. Not quite at the halfway point, I know it will maintain this high degree of interest and the unexpected. My friend who also loves horses and IS knowledgeable about racing is going to love this book. Can't believe this enthralling novel is in the 'bargain' book category!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I only picked this book up because Jane Smiley wrote it. I have no interest in-- and admit to some antipathy for-- the 'horsey set.' However, I found HORSE HEAVEN totally compelling. I learned more than I ever thought I'd want to know about horses, racing, and all the people involved. Smiley is a master at conveying the smallest nuance and getting inside the heads of her characters-- including the horses. I just couldn't put this book down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Jane Smiley does an excellent job of getting into the thought processes of a select group of horses and the people who surround them. She visits the lives of an aristocratic couple whose marriage is almost on the rocks, a single black woman who worked at Wal-Mart until a famous rapper walks into her life, a middle-aged horse farm owner with a sharp wit and an even sharper tongue, and a host of other people. Try it! You'll like it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Richly woven story, great characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Rarely do i read a book twice, but for this i am making an exception. Smart, hilarious, engrossing.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Having grown up around Santa Anita racetrack and spent some time on several lush thoroughbred breeding farms in California, I was somewhat disappointed with this book. I think this book could have been better. I think the ideas were on the right track, however there were too many loose ends and not enough detail to create a masterpiece. With so much going on and so many characters, Smiley may have took on to big of a challenge to effectively capture the true essence of her characters. I admit I had a hard time putting this book down, but mainly because I kept hoping for more and never got it. Much of what I read I already knew and I wanted Smiley to delve deeper. I was also disappointed that Smiley had to include several racy sex scenes. -must a good author resort to this to assure successful book sales or catch the eye of a Hollywood movie maker?? I think her approach to these scenes could have been more tasteful. I imagine for a horse enthuasist this is a great beginners guide. Overall, it was a good book, but not exceptional. I did enjoy the horses and how she protrayed their individual personalities and drive. -a must for any horse racing story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was very impressed with this novel, the first I have read by Ms. Smiley. She weaves together multiple characters, both human and equine, and follows their up's and down's through about 600 pages. The storytelling is full and complete and the conclusions are very satisfying. Readers who have an interest in horse racing, and/or are willing to immerse themselves in that world, will especially enjoy this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This story is filled with details and characters that are without any real connection or importance. I have read books with as many characters (check out The Milagro BeanField Wars by John Nichols)and enjoyed them. What is missing here is any development of many of them which makes it an annoyance rather than a pleasure to run into them again. I loved A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. I disliked Moo for the same reason I disliked this book. This is it for me with this author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
should you consider this book. There are too many characters, too few in-depth characterizations. You need a score-card to keep track of who is who. While Smiley is trying to impress her readers with her vast knowledges of horses...and there are many interesting facts...there is no real compelling plot. The book is more like a series of short stories strung together. By the end of the book, which ties up each and every storyline with a pretty bow, you're left feeling, 'so what' .
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had never been a great fan of horse stories, but this one really got me. The author writes in loving detail about the world of horse racing, and draws the reader into the lives of all her characters, both human and equine. I actually cared more about the horses than the humans in the story, who were not as 'approachable' as the animals they loved, exploited, and in many cases treated as nothing more than commodities. Hands down, the mighty and lovable thoroughbred Justa Bob was my favorite - you will keep turning the pages of this rather wordy book just to learn what his final fate is.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've read dozens of horse books...from Black Beauty, to The Black Stallion, to Dick Francis and Willie Shoemaker mysteries, to the Thoroughbred books, and I can safely say that this is by far the best horse book I've ever read. By the end of the book, you really love the horses and care about what happens to them...Justa Bob...Limitless...Residual...Epic Steam...Mr. T...Froney's Sis...all of them