The Sport of Kings
C.E. Morgan (2016)
I’m adding this book to my pantheon of very challenging pleasure reads, alongside Middlemarch (which I didn’t much like) and Moby-Dick (which I loved.) The Sport of Kings will sit on the fence between them, at least for now, as I continue to mull over my reaction to this book.
Having read C.E. Morgan’s first book (All the Living, 2009), which came as an amazing surprise, I looked forward to revisiting her distinctive writing style. Kings, clocking in at over 500 pages, is an equally rich, rewarding, and challenging read, but it’s also at times ponderous and meandering. Spanning multi-generations of multi-characters, primarily set in the moneyed horse country of Kentucky (but also the impoverished inner-city of Cincinnati), this book reads like a hybrid of Faulkner, Melville, Steinbeck, and Shakespeare, as it grapples with race, class, entitlement, money, poverty, slavery, and the responsibility (and imprisonment) of one generation to the next.
None of the main characters are particularly likeable, but they’re human—complex, puzzling, and imperfect. There’s Henry Forge, who inherits his father’s Kentucky farm (land that has been in his family since after the Revolutionary War) and builds his fortune by switching from crops to thoroughbreds (over his daddy’s dying wish), hellbent on a quest to build the next Secretariat. Henry grooms his daughter Henrietta to be the next to add luster to the family’s good name. Henrietta is a tragic character, whose life is charted by her family tree before she’s even born. Then there’s Allmon, a bi-racial ex-con hired to work as a groom, who has a distant and unknown connection to the Forge family. The sun around which they all revolve is a thoroughbread filly named Hellsmouth, the likes of which has never been seen.
The Sport of Kings is a book that demands complete attention, and you want to give it, as you absorb each sentence with care. Morgan’s prose is a master class in description, lush and evocative without pretension, but for a book of this length, such verbiage can get a wearisome. While I marveled, for instance, at the way Morgan accelerates time, propelling a character through the years with the brevity of a page or two, like a verbal film montage, by the end of the book I couldn’t take another hyper-florid description of day’s end. Just set the dang sun already!
To say there’s a lot going on in this book is an understatement, as characters attempt to stake their claim while trying to escape and reshape their pasts, at times with the weight of the world’s problems upon them. Reading Kings is worthwhile but difficult, and it takes time. It’s a book you could get through quickly by skimming, but you don’t want to. The expressive writing invites you to slow down and savor the language; there’s just so much of it.
While not a great book (and I really wanted to love it), The Sport of Kings is a book that will spark interesting discussion. (I have no doubt it will be taught in American literature courses alongside the greats.) I keep asking others if they have read it, hoping to find an impromptu book discussion that will certainly enhance the reading experience.