Horse Heaven

Horse Heaven

by Jane Smiley

Paperback(First Trade Paperback Edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780449005415
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/27/2001
Series: Reader's Circle Series
Edition description: First Trade Paperback Edition
Pages: 561
Sales rank: 237,521
Product dimensions: 8.02(w) x 11.24(h) x 1.08(d)

About the Author

Jane Smiley is the author of nine previous works of fiction, including The Age of Grief, The Greenlanders, Ordinary Love & Good Will, A Thousand Acres (for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize), and Moo. She lives in northern California.


Northern California

Date of Birth:

September 26, 1949

Place of Birth:

Los Angeles, California


B.A. in English, Vassar College, 1971; M.A., Iowa University, 1975; M.F.A, 1976; Ph.D., 1978

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'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.

Reading Group Guide

1. Introducing her work as a "comic epic poem in prose," Ms. Smiley warns her readers that the characters and events in Horse Heaven are no more than "figments of the author's imaginings," and that "their characteristics as represented bear no relation to real life." Discuss the levels of irony in her remark. Also, how does the description of genre fit or mislead?

2. Most characters in Horse Heaven are struggling with the issue of identity. What makes the matter more pressing for some than for others? What approaches frustrate or facilitate attempts at clarity? How is the issue different for the horses than for the humans? What role do places and other beings play as a character tries to navigate the world within?

3. Ms. Smiley plays with many modes of humor throughout Horse Heaven, from slapstick to the absurd to keen satire. Provide examples of each. How do they blend into one another? Are there moments of gallows humor? If not, why? To what use does Ms. Smiley put her comedic turns? How much do they color the novel?

4. What cherished American myths does Horse Heaven satirize, if not debunk? Which myths does it uphold? Does Ms. Smiley tell a distinctly American story as well as one capable of resonating elsewhere? If so, what allows her subject to transcend place and time?

5. Ms. Smiley has discussed the primacy of the individual in the world of horse racing, yet her novel is replete with relationships of every sort. Discuss the connection that exists between the social and private realms. How does one shape and define the other? What themes surface in exploring the connection between the two?

6. Fate and fortuity are opposing forces in Horse Heaven. Which characters choose to see themselves as players in a destiny authored by some mysterious other? Which see the exercise of their individual will as the shaping force in their lives? How do self-deception and honesty factor into each perspective?
Explain how the ways and world of horses shed light on these matters.

7. What motivates characters such as Farley Jones and Buddy Crawford to turn to religion? How does their work express or contradict their beliefs? Where else does religion surface in the novel? Should the benevolent force apparently at work throughout the novel be construed in religious terms?

8. Explain how desire operates as a persistent, enigmatic force throughout Horse Heaven. Which characters bow to it, and which manage to control it? Is there more joy in the wanting or the receiving? Does Oscar Wilde's quip about the tragedy of getting what one wants apply? How and to whom?

9. Ms. Smiley has celebrated the racetrack as a storyteller's paradise. Which characters prove most adept at spinning fact into fiction? How do they use that talent? What motivates the mythologizing and romanticizing of horses—and some humans—that takes place throughout the novel? What is it about the world of horses that makes possible, if not credible, such an array of tall tales?

10. Ms. Smiley has stressed the need for novelists to engage readers by imaginatively explicating the social, cultural, economic, and political reality of a particular moment. What is the significance of her choice of historical moment in Horse Heaven? What themes are amplified in Ms. Smiley's handling of the years 1997 through 1999? Where do the worlds of horses and politics meet? How do race and gender factor into the novel? Does the world of horses offer a complete and complex microcosm? If not, what's missing?

11. After describing thoroughbreds as exuberant and sensitive creatures of many opinions and a deep intelligence, the omniscient narrator informs us that they have "too much of every lively quality rather than too little." How do characters such as Epic Steam and Residual live up to this description?

12. Discuss the arc of Justa Bob's life. Who are his literary forerunners? How does Ms. Smiley's handling of the character achieve pathos while avoiding bathos?

13. Which points outlined in Farley's "The Tibetan Book of Thoroughbred Training" are validated by the novel's close? Which prove wanting? How would you amend the list to capture the spirit of Horse Heaven?

14. How does Ms. Smiley's careful chronicling of the ins and outs of horse breeding and training, compare with our insoluble debates about the roles of genetics and environment in shaping who we are? Do you believe that nature or nurture has the upperhand in defining a horse? A human? Why?

15. Ms. Smiley has encouraged those readers overwhelmed by the array and number of characters simply to keep an eye on the horses. Thus, time with the novel evokes time at the racetrack. How else does the structure of the novel complement its content? Provide examples.

16. One is tempted to credit much of the drama in Horse Heaven to coincidence, yet the intricacies of the plot suggest something else. What does Ms. Smiley's chronicling of many individuals' wills in conflict say about that which we often lazily call luck?

17. Many have lauded the complexity and pluck of Ms. Smiley's horses by comparing them to humans. Do her horses maintain their, well, horseness, or are they—through an act of anthropomorphism—transformed into creatures defined by human fears, desires, frustrations, etcetera? Discuss the dynamic relationship between horses and humans.

18. Find and discuss the passages in Horse Heaven where you see Ms. Smiley working in the grand tradition of the novel's heyday—the middle of the nineteenth century. Can you detect the influence of Dickens, Trollope, or Balzac? Where? To what other writers and literary traditions does Ms. Smiley tip her hat? How is Horse Heaven a novel of our time and of another?

Customer Reviews

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Horse Heaven 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 29 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.
marysargent on LibraryThing 7 months ago
Wonderful, wonderful. I not only admired it for its plotting, characters and writing, I loved it. I had a crush on it. She conveyed lots of information about horse racing and everyone involved in it without showing off, without making you stop and think about how much she knows. Smiley gets better with every book.
susanbevans on LibraryThing 7 months ago
Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley is a novel about horses and their breeders, owners, trainers, grooms, jockeys, traders, bettors and other turf-obsessed humans. It takes place over two-years and chronicles the lives of various horses and their people.I know a little about horses - that is to say I've ridden horses, been to riding competitions, and been to the race track - but I still found this book particularly hard to get into. You see nothing ever happens, there is no real plot. The entire novel is much more a character epic, and the only redeemable characters are the horses. The horses are quirky and sensitive, and you become attached to them all and feel their ups and downs, their victories and defeats. The book bounces from character to character, in a way that makes you assume that the stories will converge at some point, but they never really do. They are all loosely related by being in the racing world, but that's it. Every time I felt I had a handle on everyone in the book, Smiley added another set of characters - I couldn't keep up!In conclusion, let me say this to you: if you enjoy plot-driven novels, this book it not for you; if you enjoy slow-moving character studies, you'll enjoy Horse Heaven. My advice is to read this book for the horses, because the humans will disappoint you every time.
nancenwv on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I loved this book! The combination of a rich knowledge of horses, horse people, and racing was impressive but what I really loved was Smiley's cast of characters (including the horses and the Jack Russell terrier). She kept surprising me with her insight, her creativity,and her humor. Terrific.
bjgoff689 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
To read again and again. Speaking as a rider and horse lover, but this is not just a book about horses. Human frailties, romance, career disruptions and disillusionment, friendship, tragedy, comedy, destiny, fate, you name it. Great book.
missreeka on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This is a big, sprawling book, so massive that it comes complete with a list of characters that is two pages long. And yes, the book jumps all over the place, from Belmont to Del Mar, even to Paris and then back, and just as you're settling in with one character (and it could be a four-legged one) you're off to another. But Smiley can pull it off, and some of my favorite parts of the book were those told from the horses' point of view. And at the end of this 500+ page book, I found myself wishing that it wouldn't end just yet.
KAzevedo on LibraryThing 8 months ago
The racing world is a complex microcosm of life. This book is a great view of that world with its huge variety of characters and the horses around which it revolves. It's hard to put down, and often there are profound passages about life that must be reread several times. It's real too, so if it hurts too much to learn what life is for race horses, don't read it. But, there are many good people and heartworming events to balance the harsh reality. As a horse owner, it was a sometimes painful, sometimes funny, involving, altogether compelling read.
rutibegga on LibraryThing 10 months ago
couldn not get into this book. too many characters, no reason to care about any of them.
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.